How to effectively manage capability procedures at work

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Lizzie Buxton

11th February 2019

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It’s important for businesses to have standards. Your reputation is made or lost on both the quality of the work you do and the way in which you carry it out. Ultimately, each individual in your organisation is responsible for upholding these standards in the way they go about their day-to-day work.

If someone consistently fails to embody these standards then your capability procedures need to kick in. This isn’t about punishment – it’s about upholding your standards and reputation and about helping a member of staff to improve – which should also be good for them in the long run too.

But how do you get the balance right? How do you make sure you enforce your standards in a fair way that is to the benefit of all? Our guide aims to help you to manage capability procedures effectively…

Set clear standards and communicate them well

The most important thing is to articulate what your standards actually are. These should be clearly spelled out and made clear to a new recruit either in their contract or employee handbook. It isn’t fair to hold people to standards that haven’t been spelled out.

Guidelines folder for workplace policiesIt also pays to be as specific as you can. Whether that’s targets for how quickly certain tasks should be done, right through to dress codes for people who are client-facing. The greater the level of ambiguity, the more likely your standards will slip and they’ll be tougher to enforce.

Many businesses choose to set out their core principles – a set of four or five key qualities that define who they are as a business and how they want to behave. These can be referred to during performance reviews and set the tone for acceptable standards.

Wherever you choose to spell out your standards and expectations, you need to ensure that this is easily accessible – make it easy for all parties to refer to and ensure everyone knows when they’ve been changed. Communication is also important when it comes to reporting capability issues. Line managers need to know how to log and discuss their concerns and how to receive appropriate support should they eventually need to talk about a capability or performance matter.

Give people a chance

In an ideal world, that alone might be enough. Yet, we have to accept that employees are only human and that not everyone will soak up all of your principles and understand how to embody the standards you want to set.

Line managers play an important role in monitoring their employees’ behaviour and, especially during a probation period, emphasising what is expected and required. You have to give people a chance to understand your policies and to refresh their understanding of what’s been outlined. If you’re patient with people, especially at the start, then you can’t be seen to have acted unfairly when you enforce your expectations further down the line.

Try to sort things informally

In that spirit, you should also look, where possible, to sort a performance issue through informal channels first. This can be picked up in a regular one-to-one meeting or addressed in a separate conversation of its own, depending on the nature of the issue and the relationship between a line manager and employee.

It may well even make sense, initially, to spell out to someone that their workplace activity is likely to lead to a formal capability procedure if matters do not change. This gives them the opportunity to change and gives them fair notice of the procedure to follow if they choose not to heed this.

The important thing to note here is that a capability procedure should be a last resort, not a first resort. The vast majority of workplace performance issues can be solved without this – whether the answer is training, support, scrutiny or something else entirely. By helping line managers to be able to manage this, HRs can prevent many issues escalating.

Understand your people

One way to ensure you’re able to identify issues at an early opportunity and enact this informal activity is by understanding your people more thoroughly. This is where people analytics really comes into its own, pulling in insight from diverse data sets to build a picture of individuals and teams.

It’s also important to understand any underlying health issues that may be affecting someone’s performance and separate these out. Disability, sickness and mental health can sometimes be wrongly lumped together with general capability, which is wrong and leaves you open to the possibility of discrimination. If these are affecting performance, work closely to support the colleague in question and suggest ways in which you can adapt your workplace and processes to accommodate someone’s needs.

By spotting issues early on, you’re able to act before a minor issue spirals – and by understanding people more deeply you’ll get a feeling for the underlying factors that may or may not be affecting their performance so that you can be understanding and supportive where required, and act firmly and fairly in the right circumstances too.

Hold a formal meeting and keep notes

If informal action is unsuccessful and there is a persistent issue to be addressed, then you should hold a formal meeting with a view to starting the capability procedure in earnest.

Business partners working on project together

It’s important to stress, however, that this should be a conversation that looks at all sides of the issue. It’s about you looking at anything that can be put in place – training, changes to the workplace environment, extra support – for your end of the bargain just as much as it is looking at ways for the employee to up their game.

The employee should have plenty of notice for this meeting and ample opportunity to bring any notes and evidence that they wish to present – as well as a clear understanding of what will be discussed. You may choose to write a letter or draft up a meeting agenda, either way it’s good to set out the terms of the meeting in writing beforehand. You should also make clear who will be attending the meeting – with HR required to support line managers and senior colleagues once a matter reaches this stage. The employee may wish to bring a colleague or trade union representative with them.

This shouldn’t be about catching someone out – it needs to be a professional and detailed conversation about a capability issue that gets to the bottom of what needs to be done to change this. Employers should make a positive, proactive approach for how they wish to change, giving the employee an opportunity to take a productive way out.

Notes should be taken to document what is discussed in your meeting and circulated afterward to ensure both parties agree that they are an accurate reflection of the matter put forward. A plan also needs to be devised to set out the next steps – including specific targets and goals – and a date for a follow-up meeting to assess the success of these steps.

If you issue a warning, make it clear

Some serious matters might lead to a formal warning. This doesn’t have to be the case – and it’s important not to see this as an inevitable consequence.

However, if you do decide to issue a formal warning as the result of the conduct or actions of an employee then you need to handle this correctly.

This should clearly establish the cause of the issue – with specific detail to avoid any confusion – and any action that will be taken to rectify this. A copy should be kept on the person’s file and clear notes on what the next steps will be should the matter arise again.

Dismissal and appeals

Only after you’ve been through meetings and an official warning should the prospect of dismissal be raised. In fact, an employee could expect to receive at least two formal warnings before they can be dismissed. Many employers make clear when they have issued a ‘final warning’ so that it’s clear that no more of these will be issued.

Business people working together on laptop in office at deskThis is the ultimate final sanction after every other avenue has been explored. You’ll need to keep accurate notes to show that you’ve followed your own procedure in full, with details of all of the stages above to demonstrate what you’ve done to avoid the matter reaching this stage.

Employers should be braced for an appeal – and an employee may wish to claim unfair dismissal if they feel you have not acted in accordance with your own policy. Businesses with a clear system in place will be able to demonstrate quickly and clearly the action they have taken in this regard.

Apply the rules fairly and review them

People have to be able to see that everyone is treated fairly. This means not only sticking to the rules that you’ve set out but also explaining how you’ve acted and why, and referring to previous capability procedures so that people can see that your actions are consistent.

To help with this, keep an up-to-date log of all capability procedures and ensure that the success of these are reviewed so that lessons can be learned for future cases. A process that is rigid and not open to change is unlikely to be satisfactory.

If you need help with performance management, we offer a series of training courses designed specifically for managers to help them tackle employee performance and other matters such as stress and anxiety.

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