Questioning techniques for handling poor performance

Handling poor performance is never an easy task, yet asking the right questions can go a long way to facilitating an effective meeting. Solicitor Julie Sillito offers some practical guidance on questioning techniques.

Your starting point for resolving issues should be to deal with them early and informally. If you have not already done so as part of your ongoing, day-to-day people management, sit down and discuss your concerns with the employee. Use these meetings to try to encourage and develop the behaviour or performance you want.

You should not automatically assume that the employee is at fault. Investigate the causes of poor performance before deciding what action to take. Your aim should always be to help the employee bring their performance up to standard.

Consider whether the following factors are affecting performance:

  • insufficient training;
  • a recent change in the employee’s role/responsibilities;
  • personal factors or health problems;
  • if the employee is unclear about what is expected of them.

The way you phrase your questions during this informal stage is important; your approach should be supportive. Asking the right questions can go a long way to facilitating an effective meeting.

First, let’s start with what types of questions you should avoid:

Leading questions

You should not assume anything until told. For example: “You failed to follow our absence reporting procedure, didn’t you?”

Multiple questions

These confuse the employee and may lead to vital information being missed. For example: “Why did you come in late this morning? Has it happened before? Are you aware of the absence reporting procedure?”

Instead, try to use:

Information questions

These are general questions which open the dialogue, such as ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’. 

Probing questions

Focus on particular aspects of the conversation and attempt to establish more detail, for example: “You have just mentioned that…. please give me some more detail on this.”

Closed questions

Use these to clearly establish facts, such as: “Are you aware of the absence reporting procedure?” They are particularly effective if the employee is talking excessively or if they are avoiding a question. 

Confirmation questions

These are used to summarise a situation and confirm what the employee has actually said, for example: “To summarise, you have stated … is my understanding correct?” You should use these questions throughout the meeting to check understanding.

Opinion questions

These can be asked to get the employee’s opinion of why they behaved as they did, for example: “Why did you think that was appropriate at the time?” 

Review meetings

Where poor performance results from the employee’s own negligence, laziness or misconduct, the discipline procedure should be used. However, where there are other causes, for example a lack of training or a health problem, it will be more appropriate to follow a capability procedure.

A capability procedure provides for a series of performance review meetings where the employee is given a clear understanding of the standards required, time and support to make the necessary improvements and warnings of the consequences of failing to achieve them. When developing a formal capability procedure, it is best practice to involve employees and, where appropriate, their representatives.

Failure to follow a fair procedure will normally mean that a dismissal on the grounds of poor performance will be unfair. The Acas Code of Practice on discipline and grievance contains the basic principles of procedural fairness. The Code applies to poor performance, even when it is dealt with under a separate capability procedure. Tribunals take this Code into account when considering relevant cases and have the power to increase any awards they make by up to 25% if an employer has failed to comply with any of the Code’s provisions. Your procedure for dealing with poor performance should therefore incorporate the basic principles of fairness set out in the Code. 

Remember, if you have employees you’re legally required to take out employer’s liability insurance, in most cases.

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