What if bad job performance is due to a physical problem?

If you have a reasonable belief that the employee is not able to do the job because of a physical problem, then you have the right to ask a disability-related question of the employee or require a medical examination. Let's say that Barry has worked for you for seven years without either a tardiness or an attendance problem, but suddenly he starts coming to work late, develops bags under his eyes, and falls asleep at his desk. Not only can you ask the employee about his well-being or if he is feeling all right, but you can ask him if he can continue to perform his work with reasonable accommodation. If he can't, then you can terminate him.

Can an employee assistance program (EAP) solve performance and discipline problems?

An employee assistance program is a company-sponsored program instituted to help employees deal with personal problems that are interfering with their productivity. Such problems include alcoholism, marital difficulties, depression, and other psychological concerns. The counselors are not company employees but independent contracts—usually specialists who provide this service to several organizations.

Managers should be trained to recognize when the kind of specialized counseling from EAP may be needed and to suggest that their employees take advantage of the training. In some instances, the company may require that the employee assistance program be used as part of a disciplinary action. For instance, an alcoholic may be given the choice of using the corporate EAP to overcome her problem or being terminated.

EAP has been proven to salvage many skilled and experienced people. But it doesn't always work. If you find that the individual's performance continues to be below standard despite lengthy EAP help, you may have to terminate the individual. A final warning should be given in a meeting with the employee that a further discipline incident or other problem in performance will result in his termination.

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Most EAP programs include the following specialists:

Medical doctors. Physicians may deal with general medical problems or specific disorders.

Psychiatrists. These physicians specialize in serious psychological and emotional disorders.

Psychologists or psychotherapists. These individuals work with people who have less serious emotional problems.

Marital counselors or family therapists. These specialists deal with marital problems and difficulties with children or other family members.

Financial counselors. Since many of the worries people have are about money, financial counselors can help them work out payment plans with creditors, develop budgets, and live within their incomes.

Whether the employee agrees to accept the EAP referral or not, you should make clear that work performance must improve. Set specific objectives and specific time periods for performance improvement. In the end, the employee should leave the meeting with you with three clear messages: (1) You are concerned and eager to help; (2) you have identified problems with her work; and (3) work performance must improve or termination may be warranted.

What alternatives do I have to termination?

If you think the worker is worth saving, you may want to place the person on probation, place him on suspension, or demote him. If a newcomer has failed to meet your expectations or a long-term employee is not able to handle the needs of a changing job, you may want to ask the employee to leave voluntarily.

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If the employee has the potential to turn around, then you may want to put her on probation—during which she is denied certain benefits. For instance, she may not have the right to work flexible hours or attend company-sponsored events until her work performance improves. A typical probation period lasts from one to three months. During this time, the worker's performance is monitored strictly to make sure that there is no repetition of the problem.

The employee is told that this is her chance to save her job and that she will be evaluated at the end of the probation period. An employee who violates the terms of the probation and is subsequently fired will be hard-pressed to prove to a judge or jury that she was treated unfairly.

Probation is often used when an employee has shown some aberrant behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse. The employee agrees to seek help, and an agreement is formulated in which the employer agrees to keep the worker on as an employee and the employee agrees to reform her behavior.

When an employee is suspended from work, with or without pay, he is expected to formulate a revised work plan or set specific new goals. It also gives a company the chance to investigate further charges against an employee. A worker who fails to come up with a reasonable plan to improve or correct his improper behavior will be fired at once. Termination will also result if the investigation identifies him as guilty of a major violation of company rules.

Suspension is a fairly drastic measure, one step short of termination for misconduct, and it can be tricky. Some employees enjoy the paid vacation it sometimes offers. Those suspended without pay return to work broke and angry. And their coworkers aren't that thrilled, either—they had to pick up the slack during the employee's suspension.

Demotion may salvage an employee who has failed to do the job but has the right job attitude and interest to want to keep on staff. Maybe the employee was promoted beyond his ability or maybe he needs an opportunity to grow further before he is promoted. Whatever the reason, putting him in a position with fewer responsibilities and less pay may actually be a relief. This transfer may work out for both the employee and the company but it's important that you make clear how and why the performance in the original position was deficient if you choose this as an option.

Yes, you can ask an employee to leave voluntarily, assuming that the worker and job are incompatible (there is no overt wrongdoing or negligence involved), and you want to address the situation quickly. For the employee to quit voluntarily, you usually have to give him reason to leave—like a reasonable, even generous, severance. The employee saves face, and you are spared the time you would have had to spend in counseling an employee whom you believe would not fit in anyway.

Sometimes, companies agree to keep such employees on staff until they land a new job, but this may be tricky in a tight labor market. A clean, quick break is much better.

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