HR Management & Compliance

Performance: What Should We Do with an Employee Who Refuses to Acknowledge Performance Issues?

We have an employee who’s not up to par. We’ve tried to explain his shortcomings in disciplinary meetings and performance reviews, but he just refuses to acknowledge his performance problems. What do we do?Anonymous


To address this frequent headache for employers, we spoke to Rhoma Young of Rhoma Young & Associates and Tom Makris, Esq., SPHR, of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP.

Rhoma: I think you need to be very forthright and very clear with the employee. You really need to say, look, this is what is expected from you, and put that in writing as specifically as you can. It’s very difficult for an employee to continue to ignore something that’s sitting right in front of him or her that’s in very specific language. You should explain the impact of the employee’s behavior on the organization. If the person’s behavior is really unacceptable, you should address it immediately. If the person’s performance fails to improve, you should then outline the consequences of continued poor performance/failure to meet expectations— up to and including termination. Tell the person that if the performance is not improved within a reasonable period of time—and be specific, 30 days, 60 days—on a sufficient basis, then he or she will no longer be employed there.

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Tom: Every employer has dealt with situations where the employee is just either unwilling or unable to recognize problems to a point where you just shake your head—you can’t believe that the person doesn’t get it. Or, the employee may recognize that there are issues, but the person has a very long list of reasons that it’s not his or her fault—that his or her problems are the fault of other people or the result of circumstances beyond his or her control. Some employees are not willing to accept responsibility. At some level, you may not be able to completely overcome that, but I agree with Rhoma. The best and most effective way is putting things very frankly—particularly the process of sitting down and working in partnership with the employee; setting the employee’s goals; emphasizing the significance of achieving those goals or avoiding problems; identifying problems; and emphasizing the significance of avoiding those problems going forward, including a discussion of the consequences. The prospective identification of what needs to be done going forward is often a more effective way of getting through to people who don’t recognize their shortcomings than the retrospective—for example, discussing what went wrong in the last quarter.

Rhoma: The other thing is that if you are going to really try to make sure that person understands, bring another person in to that conversation—a manager, an HR rep—because that shows the employee that this is a matter of importance. It gets his or her attention. It also can protect you, and it may minimize the fact that the employee might be viewing this as a contest between him or her and the manager. The minute you start bringing in additional people, you make it more apparent to the employee that this is an organizational issue, not just a personal issue between a manager and his or her subordinate.

Rhoma Young is founder and head of HR consulting firm Rhoma Young & Associates in Oakland.

Tom Makris, Esq., SPHR, is counsel at the Sacramento office of the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP.