How to guide

How to manage the employment relationship where an employee is trying, but appears to be unable to perform work to the required standard (poor work performance)


When an employee takes on employment, s/he undertakes to work according to reasonable and relevant standards set by the employer. The performance standard should be known to an employee (or s/he should reasonably be expected to know it). The standards may be communicated verbally (for example during a meeting with a manager), in writing (for example, in a memo or letter of appointment), in terms of monthly or quarterly targets, or may be known through practice and custom.


If the employee fails to meet the required standard of performance, the employer must address it.


An employee may not be able reach the performance standard expected of him/her and may not be able to do the work for which s/he was employed due to lack of skill, qualification, knowledge or efficiency. Although there may be no misconduct on the part of the employee who is not performing, an employer may dismiss such an employee in a fair manner provided all reasonable steps have been followed to try to assist the employee to achieve the required standard or reasonable alternatives have been considered.


An example of poor work performance may be a salesperson who may have a clean disciplinary record and works diligently, but despite this cannot meet the required sales targets that have been set by the employer.


What steps must and employer take to assist an employee who is not performing to the required standard?


The following preliminary steps should be taken:

  • Assess the employee’s performance by taking an overall view of actual problem areas as compared to actual job requirements.
  • Assess what was done, how it was done and note shortcomings against targets, objectives or standards applicable to the job.
  • Identify any learning and development needs.
  • Identify any structural obstacles to performance for example broken equipment or staff shortages.
  • Gather all evidence needed which reflect poor performance.
  • Obtain information about the employee’s experience, qualifications and personal circumstances from first-hand observation, workplace records and supervisors. Do not make assumptions – gather facts.


If the assessment indicates poor work performance, invite the employee to a counselling session.

How to counsel an employee in a fair manner for poor work performance:

  1. Arrange a suitable venue for the counselling meeting and inform the relevant persons who need to attend (for example a manager or a supervisor).
  2. Give reasonable notice of the counselling meeting and its purpose to the employee and other role players.
  3. Advise the employee that s/he may bring a representative to the consultation. This may be a fellow employee or a trade union representative (shop steward). Assistance by a trade union official only applies if a trade union has been granted organizational rights to have elected shop stewards for this purpose. A trade union representative who does not satisfy this criterion may only assist an employee if s/he is a fellow employee.
  4. Should the employee require the assistance of an interpreter, advise the employee that s/he may bring a fellow employee to the counselling session to assist as an interpreter.
  5. At the counselling meeting, re-state the purpose of the meeting and how it will run.
  6. Advise the employee that notes will be taken and that the proceedings may be recorded by the employer.
  7. Go through the performance standards required of the employee.
  8. Highlight positive and negative performance areas.
  9. Provide hard evidence to back up claims of poor performance – avoid general observations.
  10. Explain how the employee’s role contributes to the success of the business and that an employer has the right to set reasonable standards.
  11. Give the employee and his/her representative the opportunity to comment and respond.
  12. Listening actively and open up the discussion if there are disagreements.
  13. Listen and respond to the employee’s concerns.
  14. Attempt to agree on a reasonable plan of action to improve the employee’s performance:
    • Set objectives which the employee is expected to achieve. (These objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound). These may include: competencies, outputs or behaviours to be achieved.
    • Identify future training or coaching to achieve the objectives.
    • Identify reasonable structural changes that the employer can make, for example, replacing broken or outdated electronic or other equipment.
    • Provide a written summary of objectives which the employee is expected to achieve (for example: the number of new customers to be recruited by the end of the year; the time it takes to clear an invoice or process an application; the quality of a product; improving customer satisfaction by 25% over the coming year; the amount to be generated in sales etc.)
  1. Include clear action steps – who will do what by when.
  2. Give the employee a reasonable time period for improvement and record it in writing.
  3. Arrange for a follow up meeting on an agreed date and time.
  4. Obtain the employee’s commitment to provide feedback and to request help if required, by establishing a channel for open, two-way communication between the employee and his/her manager.
  5. Explain that continued poor performance might lead to termination of employment.


After this initial consultation, the employee’s performance must be monitored and recorded as agreed:

  • Meet with the employee and his/her representative on the agreed date in order to determine whether there has been an improvement in the employee’s performance.
  • Establish whether there has been any improvement and whether there is room for further improvement.
  • An agreement may be reached for a further reasonable time period for improvement.
  • Schedule follow up meetings accordingly.

How to end employment fairly due to poor work performance

Poor work performance

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