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Managing employees 

Getting your people management skills right can be the most challenging but rewarding part of running a business. When employees perform poorly it can be for many reasons. The situations that require management of people can quite often be the most stressful part of a supervisor or manager’s role. 

NSW Industrial Relations runs interactive workshops that provide employers/managers with the practical knowledge and skills to more confidently manage their employees. 

Communication is the key 

Being able to communicate with employees is the key to managing people well! Many employment situations often involve sensitive and difficult to handle matters which can include:

  • personal hygiene
  • dress or professional image
  • personal relationships including sexual behaviour in the workplace
  • medical and mental health issues, alcohol or drug related issues
  • bullying or harassment, inappropriate language and attitude.

The key to successful people management is to address this sometimes delicate and even offensive behaviour by staff with honesty and openness ensuring that the employee understands how the particular behaviour is affecting their performance in the workplace.

Six ways to improve communication between a manager and employees:

  1. Identify which communication methods are ineffective and unproductive and try something different.
  2. Take personal communication styles into account and any personal difficulties that parties may be experiencing eg. is their personality that of an extrovert or introvert.
  3. Break the issue down in to smaller parts and specifically clarify what are the 'real' issues at hand, focusing on the important issues.
  4. Remain focused and clear, and ensure privacy so that that you can establish trust.
  5. Have a willingness to explore options.
  6. It is important to provide realistic outcomes to parties who may be holding onto perceived best outcome scenarios.

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Why do staff under perform? 

There can be many reasons why an employee may be performing badly and this can be personal or work-related. It may be surprising to realise that sometimes these reasons concern factors related to the design of an employee's job and the tasks they are required to perform.

The Fair Work Online website [Fair Work Ombudsman] has a Best Practice Guide to managing underperformance. There can be significant benefits to managing employees and implementing best practice in a workplace is the key to this.

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What are some ways to discuss an employee's poor performance? 

Employers/managers should organise to have a private discussion with the employee about the problem. It should be in a comfortable, non-threatening environment and take place at a time when neither party will be interrupted. It can be effective to conduct this as a counselling session.  However, the matter may also require a formal disciplinary procedure to be followed.

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How to conduct an effective counselling session 

A less formal way of dealing with a performance issue is to undertake an informal counselling session. This is generally in the form of listening and sharing ideas between the manager/employer and the employee and the manager/employer giving advice direction and counsel.

Counselling at work may help people identify the causes of work-related problems, such as poor performance.

There are many reasons why counselling an employee can benefit both parties. 

It can be a positive measure that prevents termination and formal disciplinary action, it can also reduce the turnover of staff and the costs associated with replacing and training new staff. It shows that manager or employer has a commitment to the employee and their performance in the role.

Counselling can form the first step before commencement of formal disciplinary procedures. It is important for the manager or employer to record the fact that the meeting took place and any course of action that was decided upon.

Some suggestions to follow when counselling employees:

  • Advise the employee the specifics of the behaviour and how the behaviour is affecting their work.
  • Be specific and compare current performance to expected performance or behaviour. Give examples.
  • Avoid comparing the employee with other employees.
  • Show empathy – explain your understanding of the situation.
  • Be a positive listener – let the employee know your understanding of the situation.
  • Establish how and when to follow up on commitments for improvement. There should also be a date set to review.
  • Close on a friendly note ensuring that anything raised in the discussion will be kept confidential.
  • Encourage the employee to keep open lines of communication for future discussion.

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What if counselling doesn't solve the problem? 

An employee may not achieve the desired improved standard immediately after the counselling session. It may require a period of adjustment and time to steadily improve.

The employer/manager must be committed to the counselling process and reward and recognise the employee's efforts to improve.

If the employer or manager is facing a situation where an employee may be dismissed, it is essential that they document and substantiate their actions.

The decision for the employer/manager to make is at what stage the benefit of counselling has been exhausted and when formal disciplinary proceedings should commence.

Sometimes an employee’s performance or conduct issues may be as a result of personal circumstances such as sickness or family difficulties etc. If their supervisor becomes aware of these during a counselling session it may be appropriate to refer the person onto a GP or other suitable health professional for specialist assistance. An employer should take these factors into account before deciding on an appropriate course of action.

Disciplinary Procedure

A disciplinary procedure is a more formal method of dealing with performance issues at the end of which the employee may be terminated.

Employers are obligated to go through a process which is considered fair and reasonable. Employers and employees can check out what is considered as harsh, unjust or unreasonable on the Fair Work Online website [Fair Work Ombudsman] but the following information may also help:

  • Employees who are performing unsatisfactorily will be counselled so they understand the standards expected of them. They will be offered assistance and guidance in achieving the expected standards.
  • Confidential records of any counselling undertaken will be made. The employee will be shown and given a copy of the written records and will have an opportunity to comment on its contents. This can be done either in writing or orally. The record will only be placed on the employee's personal file when the employee has been given the opportunity of responding to the record and adding any notations regarding the contents of the record.
  • Employees whose performance or behaviour is unsatisfactory will be given adequate time to demonstrate a willingness to improve. If at the end of this period the employee shows no willingness to improve in the opinion of the employer, a final warning in writing will be issued to the employee. This notice will inform the employee in writing that disciplinary action up to and including dismissal may be taken if the employee does not cease the unsatisfactory performance or behaviour immediately.
  • The employer also has the right to summarily dismiss an employee for serious and wilful misconduct.
  • At every stage of the disciplinary process, the employee has the right to have another employee or union representative present as a witness.

How many warnings should an employee be given before disciplinary action occurs?

There is no hard and fast rule. The supervisor should give the employee a number of chances to improve their behaviour or conduct. But do not issue a large number of warnings as this could give the impression that his or her conduct is not really serious and will not merit dismissal.

In general, three warnings would be considered adequate. It is suggested the supervisor makes sure that their employee realises the number of warnings to be given will not be open-ended.

Workplace policies
It is a good idea for employers whether small, medium or large, to have clear policies or a Code of Conduct when it comes to managing difficult employees.

These policies help provide direction to staff on what can be expected if they are being counselled or disciplined over their performance at work.

Fair Work Commission, when hearing unfair dismissal cases, have highlighted the importance of having clearly expressed policies that include allowing the employee the opportunity to respond to issues raised as well as allowing a support person to be present.

When terminating an employee, a small business employer can utilise the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code [Fair Work Ombudsman].

What happens if an employee lodges unfair dismissal?

An employee may believe that their dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable, in which case they may lodge an unfair dismissal claim. A claim can be lodged with Fair Work Commission and the employer will have the opportunity to show that they have followed a process for dismissal which included counselling and disciplinary action.


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