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Toxic vs. Underperforming Employees

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Toxic vs. Underperforming Employees

The impact of employees that intentionally refrain from adhering to company rules, as well as the cost, time and energy wasted to solve such issues are counter-productive. For this reason, organisations should try to avoid the appointment of a ‘toxic’ employee as far as possible.  This is according to Anja Hartman, HR Director of Sage VIP.


At VIP we use a simple rule when recruiting employees: “hire the smile and teach the skill”. VIP has a very strong value-based culture and we instil it from the day that the employee starts with the company.


“Companies have the right and responsibility to manage its business in a profitable way. Employees must therefore be managed in such a way that it will enhance efficiency and profitability, which implies creating and implementing regulated standards of behaviour.  In order to be effective, the employee needs to know which actions are regarded as unacceptable and the reasons for it,” explains Hartman.


The difference in how you approach a ‘toxic’ and underperforming employee lies in the question:  Are they willing and/or able to do the job?  “It is almost always related to either their attitude or skill,” says Hartman.  “The underperforming employee is usually willing but not able to do the job while attitude is often found at the core of ‘toxic’ behaviour.”


“Underperforming employees are often incapable of doing the job for which he/she has been employed due to lack of skill, knowledge or ability. I would recommend that companies place their emphasis on matching the talent of the candidate with the role requirements during the recruitment and internal movement processes. A misfit of these key indicators often results in underperformance,” says Hartman.


Underperformance can also be referred to as circumstance of ‘no fault’ on the employee’s side and should be addressed by means of counselling procedures, such as:

  • Step 1: Assessment – Review the content and standards of the job, evaluate the performance and pinpoint shortfalls. Identify and discuss the reasons for the sub-standard performance. Assess the employee’s competence against the job standards.
  • Step 2: Action plan – the manager and employee agree on the appropriate plan of action to rectify the situation.
  • Step 3: Review – decide on a reasonable date to review and monitor the improvement and establish if the underperformance has been resolved. A secondary review date can be set.
  • Step 4: Counselling enquiry - If it becomes clear that even after further counselling, the employee still does not perform in accordance with the required standards, or does not prove that he/she is capable of achieving the required standards, a counselling enquiry is called. A counselling enquiry is the medium through which the fair and just procedures required by law are conducted. A dismissal without an enquiry is deemed to be unfair.


“The above-mentioned guidelines and steps do not refer to those situations where the employee is capable to perform in accordance with the standards set, but intentionally or negligently refrains from adhering thereto,” Hartman explains. 


“When an employee’s conduct is not in line with the rules, regulations or values of the company, it is dealt with as misconduct in accordance with the company’s disciplinary code and policy. It is however impossible to list all possible situations in the disciplinary code and it should therefore not be seen as an exhaustive list of conduct that the company will address by way of disciplinary action in the form of a disciplinary hearing,” explains Hartman.


The guidelines for a disciplinary hearing:

  • Step 1: Investigation – investigate the facts before embarking on formal action.
  • Step 2: Notification of the hearing – sufficient written notification of the hearing should be given. Employees have the right to internal representation and if required, an interpreter.
  • Step 3: Conducting the hearing
  • Step 4: Applicable sanction – if the employee is found guilty a decision is taken after mitigating and aggravating circumstances are presented.
  • Step 5: Notification – the employee is notified of the outcome, if they are dissatisfied with the outcome they may appeal.


Hartman says that she uses a simple rule when recruiting employees:  ‘Hire the smile and teach the skill’. “The best advice would be to instil a strong value-based culture within the organisation that will shape behaviour from the day that the employee starts with the company,” concludes Hartman.


More in this category: « Practical Legislative guidelines for employers in 2013
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