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Identifying Early Warning Signs: A Performance Management Guide for Employers

If you know the expression ‘nip it in the bud’, you’ll understand the importance of recognising early warning signs in employees. When an employee’s poor performance is ignored unchallenged, the problem usually worsens and may bring collateral damage. Hence, identifying the early warning signs and acting sooner generally results in a better outcome for all parties. 

The Employee Warning Process

The early warning process identifies performance patterns and trends in employee/s before their conduct becomes a problem. Potential benefits could include identifying cultural clashes in the organisation, preventing employee turnover and retaining top talent, improving performance, and a reduction in hiring and training expenses. 
Moreover, an early warning process ensures the organisation fulfils its legal and ethical considerations. Speaking to an employee early rather than just dismissing them for poor performance means you have given the person a chance to review their behaviour, explain, ask for support or any additional training they may need. An employee "unaware" of their poor performance or not provided with due opportunity to improve is more likely to make an unfair dismissal claim. 

Identifying Early Warning Signs

There are a few warning signs that an employer can look out for in terms of poor employee performance and misconduct. Employers should be aware that these indicators may be reflective of external personal circumstances such as family problems or ill mental health and do not necessarily mean that the person is a ‘bad employee’. Organisations are encouraged to consider this when approaching an employee about these situations and provide them ample opportunity and a safe space to explain engaging in further performance management strategies.

Apathy and Laziness

When an employee is constantly lazy, indifferent, careless, or shows other forms of constant negative behaviours, warning bells should ring. Some examples include bypassing working hours, taking long lunch breaks, not meeting deadlines, avoiding tasks, etc.

Absenteeism and Presenteeism

A staff member may have valid reasons for excessive sick or personal leave days, but these could indicate that they are unhappy with their role or workplace, regardless of the level and role. Even when being at work, poor productivity, making simple mistakes, and not performing up to standards can all be warning signs to pay attention to.


When staff members don't behave according to the terms of employment, prompt action must be taken. Everything from a fast food worker eating on the job, a retail worker offering friends and family an unauthorised discount, and a tradesperson not charging for materials could be a warning sign. All forms of misconduct can hurt the bottom line and impact the organisation's culture and reputation.

Effective Communication Strategies

Communication is essential, especially when addressing employees showing early warning signs, as it helps make the employee aware of their behaviour, provides an opportunity to explain the situation and creates a record for the employer should the case be escalated. Ensure any communication about poor performance is conducted in a place that is private and free from distractions (i.e., a meeting room).  

Before meeting with an employee, think about your possible responses to potential arguments from the employee. Making a note of the important points to address helps you to be prepared and feel confident about your position.  
Avoid starting a conversation with the big stick approach. An ‘all guns blazing’ approach may be unlikely to help achieve the result you’re after. 

Instead, use an empathic and non-confrontational tone when you meet with the employee. Point out the warning signs noticed and ask for anything they need help with to change their behaviour. Ensure to reference the specific behaviours and provide an example/s of when this behaviour occurred. Listen to the employees. You may be willing to offer additional training, mentorship, or more regular one-on-one meetings.

Even though the tone of the meeting may be empathetic, be clear about your expectations. Don’t be afraid to restate the intention of the meeting, and when you wrap up, clearly state your expectations again. If you don’t feel the employee fully understood the material or level of importance, follow up with a short email with your offer of assistance, the behaviour changes you are expecting, and timelines (if applicable). Make sure your written communications reflect the same tone portrayed in the meeting.

Providing Constructive Feedback

Informal one-on-one meetings with an employee allow you to provide constructive feedback based on your observations in a friendly tone. You can offer support and additional resources if they think it will help their job performance. At this early stage, avoid making the meeting sound like a formal warning about their poor performance. You can explicitly state this to the employee if needed. Having clear, two-way communication can ensure an understanding of the purpose of the meeting and the standard of work expected following the meeting. 

There may be a valid reason for the employee’s behaviour you aren’t aware of, or they may be unsure of their responsibilities. If the employee discloses a personal issue, suggest using the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) (if any) to gain free counselling for themselves or family members. Let the employees know that they are welcome to approach you with any concerns or questions about work. 

Ensure a balanced interaction. You want the employee to know support is available and you’re holding them accountable for their actions or performance. Having a chat about support and assistance might be easy, but being firm about performance tends to be harder. 

Training and Resources for Managers

Identifying and addressing employee early warning signs doesn’t come naturally for many managers. It’s normal to feel unsure and nervous about speaking to a colleague about potentially sensitive issues. However, training can help managers feel more confident about taking decisive action. 

If you’re a manager or have an HR role, speak to Altius Group about accessing resources and support to navigate early warning signs in the workplace. We understand the unique pressures that managers are under and are here to support you.  
Altius Group offers a Manager Assistance Program (MAP),] that assists workplace managers and supervisors deal with issues such as concerns about an employee’s fitness for work, organisational change, managing difficult behaviours, workload, poor mental health, stress management and more. Our senior psychologists provide friendly and caring support focused on providing practical solutions.

Contact us online or call 1800 258 487 for more information.

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