Documenting performance problems: No fun for anyone
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Documenting performance problems: No fun for anyone

Here’s one thing managers never look forward to: Telling one of their people that they’re just not performing up to expectations. And then documenting what they’ve told the employee.

It’s enough to give you writer’s block.

Which is, no doubt, why a certain book has been sitting on my desk for many years: 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, by Paul Falcone. Now in its third edition, the book ranks on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Labor & Employment Law.

Useful as it is in crossing t’s and dotting i’s in ways that avoid lawsuits, this book is the bleakest on my bookshelf. Although these letters and memos are, presumably, drafted for imaginary slackers underperforming at imaginary organizations, they take on an elegaic, regretful tone that make you, the reader, (1) cringe at the transgressions; (2) grateful that it is not you who must suffer the consequences; and nonetheless (3) feeling a heartfelt urge to confess your sins and promise to do better.

Poor Paul Falcone. He must have spent a lot of time filling 381 pages with write-ups for personnel transgressions. Writing them must have had some negative effect on his view of human nature, which in this book consists of employees with problems or ill will, who seem incapable of reform despite earlier conversations and warnings.

Falcone — whose career includes top HR spots at top companies — emerges as an expert in the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove technique. He tries to be kind but insists on the problem employee following the rules, owning his or her behavior and understanding that the boss will tolerate no excuses.

It’s a delicate balance. If you wish to deliver straight talk without completely demotivating an errant employee, he’s a role model to emulate.

Some cases in point

1. A letter regarding fraudulent use of the company credit card:

Dear Tadashi (note the friendly use of the employee’s first name):

This letter is to inform you that you are hereby terminated from our company effective immediately for credit card fraud.

Your gasoline credit card reveal the following activity over the past two months: On December 10, 2009, 33.5 gallons of gas were charged to your company credit card.

One January 20, 2010, 40.5 gallons of gas were charged.

On February 8, 41 gallons of gas were charged.

However, your vehicle fills up only to a maximum of 30 gallons. It is clear that the charges  above were consequently not made for your company vehicle….

(In other words, see ya pal! In your next job, be smarter about your fraud!)

2. A write-up on Substandard Customer Service:

On November 20, you failed to complete an air-conditioning assignment that you were responsible for as an HVAC engineer. Specifically, you needed to wait for one part from the warehouse to complete the job, yet you went home without completing the job. The HVAC lead engineer on the next shift had to finish your work for you when he was paged to complete the repair….

(This transgression led to a five-point performance improvement plan, including a “strictly voluntary” session with the company’s Employee Assistance Program. In other words, get with the program.)

This book covers just about every awkward conversation you might have to have with an employee, including “Finding Pornography on an Employee’s Computer Hard Drive” (ewww!), “Veiled or Direct Threats of Violence,” “Failure to Follow Through/Dropping the Ball,” and “E-mail Misuse.”

3. Bad attitude

One of the most slippery performance issues, of course, is having a poor attitude. An employee engages in behavior that you consider evidence of an attitude problem, but the employee thinks is just fine, thank you.

The incidents provoking the sample write up are as follows: “Cashier fails to make eye contact with customers, doesn’t respond when she’s greeted, and appears to wish that she were somewhere else other than work.”

As Falcone correctly points out, “It is not good practice to discipline an employee for having a poor attitude. Attitude is a very subjective judgment that courts will dismiss because it is often associated with a mere difference of opinion or personality conflict.” Instead, he says, focus on objective behaviors.

For example: “You rarely look up from the register, and when you do, you look only at the customers’ hands as they pass you money. As a result, customers may feel alienated and less inclined to eat at our establishment in the future….”

The solution? Another five-step performance improvement plan, including a “strictly voluntary” outreach to the EAP.

No fun for anyone

Look, I’m not laughing. When you have to write up an employee, it’s no fun. It’s hard to strike the right tone. But in addition to documenting the transgressions, it takes a special kind of boss to preserve the employee’s dignity — and to communicate in a way that encourages the employee  to listen and grow.


Source: 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline & Termination, by Paul Falcone. Published by SHRM/Amacom.

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