The Right Way to Help Out
There's nothing wrong with wanting to save an employee who is floundering. In fact, that is part of your role as a manager. But make sure your actions are truly helping. Involve HR, and perhaps coworkers or your superiors, depending on the circumstances. Take a step back, push your parent hat up, and evaluate the nature and scope of the employee's problems.
Other employees are watching, too, despite any efforts to handle matters confidentially. They can't help but be interested — the situation involves them as well, as members of the work group and also in terms of how they perceive the fairness of events.
When working with a struggling employee, it's important to establish a few basics:
Whether the employee wants your help and is willing to comply with efforts to improve his or her performance
Clear goals and priorities for the employee, making sure the employee understands how those goals and priorities affect the work group or department and the company
Clear and unequivocal procedures and steps for the employee to follow to meet goals and priorities, with the employee fully aware that it is his or her responsibility to follow them
Ongoing communication to address any problems that might arise or difficulties that the employee encounters in completing the assigned tasks and steps
A process for monitoring compliance and progress, with positive and negative consequences at each step
An endpoint beyond which the employee will move to the level of independence the job requires
An understanding of what happens if the employee is unable to make the necessary adjustments
Writing up an employee for poor performance or other problems on the job is a more serious step than counseling, and in most cases it should take place only after counseling has failed to achieve the desired improvements. It is not the same thing as documenting behavior or counseling meetings.
In counseling an employee, your objective is to present the elements of job performance that are unsatisfactory and create a plan for improvement; these are corrective actions that demonstrate you're giving the employee a fair chance to change. Disciplinary action is formal notice that the employee's job is on the line.
In most situations, if you have not counseled the employee, you will find yourself in hot water by moving directly to disciplinary action. There are exceptions, of course — serious mistakes or actions that jeopardize someone's health or well-being could be grounds for jumping to discipline or even immediate termination. (Hopefully your company has policies and procedures that define these actions; if not, work closely with your HR or legal department to respond appropriately.) There could come a point at which you need to ask for a voluntary resignation, suggesting that the employee find work elsewhere, or to fire the employee.