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Whatever the reasons for you receptionist's poor performance, you must tackle this. Employers have the right to set their own standards as high as they wish. If an employee can't meet the standard then dismissal may result but procedure and decision must be reasonable in the circumstances. Given that your employee is returning from maternity leave and will have been absent from work for 9 months or a year, you should allow time for her to settle back into her role. You should offer her any training or support she may need in bringing her up to speed with the role and this may also be a good opportunity and discrete way of showing her how you require her to do the job. You could couch in terms of "other staff are doing x and we would expect you to do the same". It may be that your employee improves her performance and you have no further problems with her progress.
If, however, her performance remains as it was prior to her maternity leave, you will need to address this. In doing so, you should ensure that you follow your own poor performance policy should you have one and also ensure that you follow the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance procedures. If you dismiss your employee and this is found to be unfair, if you have failed to follow the ACAS Code of Practice, the tribunal can increase any compensation by up to 25% as result of that failure.
Key points of good practice for performance management:
1. Set clear objectives and targets for your receptionist. You must ensure that she understands what is expected of her as it is not fair to dismiss her for failing to meet standards if she doesn't know what they are.
2. Undertake regular one to ones with your employee to monitor her performance. If the one to ones identify a need for support to reach the standards you are setting, this must be provided in terms of training, coaching, closer supervision etc.
3. If you decide to investigate your employees performance then you must decide whether you need to do this formally or informally.
4. At informal stage, the process is broadly toexplain the employee's shortcoming, listen to employee's explanation, identify requirements for training, support and make arrangement to provide this, set objectives, set a review period, monitor and review at end of period and warn of consequences of failure to improve (i.e. formal procedure)
5. At formal stage, you should follow the ACAS code as this is a more serious and prescribed approach.
6. You must consider what sanction is appropriate for your employee, whether this is written warning, final written warning or dismissal. Verbal warnings may be issued but this is no longer included in the ACAS Code of Practice and is more likely to be used at the informal stage.
7. When deciding a sanction consider whether it is reasonable whether you would feel comfortable justifying that decision to a Tribunal.