Honest Mistake or Performance Issue—When to Make a Formal Referral

Posted on December 30, 2014 by VITAL WorkLife

Updated April 21, 2020


Giving a troubled performer the benefit of the doubt can seem generous. The manager may think, "He's having a bad day," or, "She'll come around with time."

Managers who dislike conflict or have a lot on their plates will often take a "wait and see" approach that may seem easier at the time, but can create bigger issues not just down the line, but today.

It can be demoralizing to work with a peer who's significantly less productive or works significantly fewer hours but takes home the same pay. Co-workers of troubled employees frequently resent managers who fail to intervene.

"They have little incentive to be on their 'A' game or go the extra mile," says Jody Bertram, senior EAP consultant for VITAL WorkLife .

As a supervisor or manager, you can bring about positive changes at work. By addressing performance problems proactively and by acting quickly in the event of a workplace crisis, you can maintain a productive and safe work environment.

Entrenched Behavior: Harder & Costlier to Correct

When poor performance is tolerated over time, it becomes more difficult—and frequently more costly—to take action. Bertram cites the example of a manager who, when working under new management, was suddenly expected to address performance issues he had been letting slide for some time.

"It turned out that years of neglecting those performance issues had given the employee a false sense of accomplishment and a case for age discrimination, given that he had been doing his job the same way without comment for 10+ years," says Bertram.

There was little the company could do at that point—but the manager was able to develop new skills and new confidence for addressing performance issues in the future.

Common Performance Issues: The Early Warning Signs

While a few bad days do not necessarily signal a personal or work performance problem, changes in work performance that occur over a period of time may indicate that a problem exists. Examples of such changes include:

Work behavior changes:

  • Changes in work performance, e.g., difficulty meeting deadlines, mistakes or errors
  • Difficulty concentrating or recalling instructions
  • Fatigue, lack of interest or participation
  • Excessive amount of personal time on the telephone or on break, or unaccounted-for time
  • Absenteeism
  • Arriving late or leaving early
  • Excessive excused and/or unexcused absences
  • Frequent Monday or Friday absences, or absences that follow a pattern
  • Relationships with others
  • Edgy, irritable, impatient
  • Over-sensitive, over-reactive, moody
  • Suspicious, defensive, blaming others
  • Withdrawn or avoiding co-workers
  • Other changes
  • Accidents
  • Deterioration in appearance
  • Asking for advances or borrowing money from others

Being aware of these warning signs will help you recognize when a potential problem is developing.

Documenting Your Concerns: Tips and Guidelines

Once you become aware of warning signs that signal a potential problem, it is important to keep a written record of performance concerns. Listed below are suggested guidelines for objectively documenting performance concerns:

  • Focus on observable, verifiable facts in an objective manner
  • Be specific regarding the date, time and place of unsatisfactory job performance
  • Provide actual observations, rather than your opinions, conclusions or hearsay
  • Identify a possible pattern of behavior
  • Keep records confidential and update on a regular basis: daily, weekly and monthly
  • Provide factual information that shows the employee's job performance over a period of time
  • Be objective, fair and consistent

We also recommend that you check with your Human Resources department for any specific procedures to follow when documenting poor work performance, and to ensure you are aware of and in compliance with any applicable written organizational policies and guidelines.

Performance-Based Referrals: How the VITAL WorkLife EAP Can Help

The VITAL WorkLife EAP includes unlimited telephone consultation for you, your employees and their families—available anytime, day or night. The EAP also includes free face-to-face counseling with master's- and doctorate-level professionals.

"Coaching around performance-based referrals is probably one of the most important—and frequently requested—services we provide to managers and supervisors," says Bertram. "Most managers feel more confident about approaching a troubled employee if they have a clear strategy and script."

The VITAL WorkLife EAP can assist you in developing a plan to address performance issues of all kinds. If you have questions regarding the potential meaning or severity of the behaviors, feel free to call and speak with one of our counselors to discuss possible approaches.

A free, confidential consultation with an EAP consultant can help you:

  • Determine when to address your concerns with the employee
  • Prepare to conduct an effective meeting
  • Help the employee to recognize both the problem and its severity by presenting the work performance decline in a factual, non-judgmental manner

Performance Based Referrals: Helpful Online Resources

We have many resources to help you as you consider a formal referral. You can log in to the member website by clicking Member Login above and then click Employer Resources in the top menu to visit our resource site.

Download our Formal Referral Manual for more details and guidance.

For more assistance, click the Contact Us button below.

Interested in learning more?

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