Pre-pandemic performance issues – start over or continue?

Q:  I put one of my employees on a warning back in January, 2020.  He was not performing and he was tardy a lot and had 3 absences in January.  Then, March, 2020 comes and we had to leave our office because of the pandemic.  His attendance is harder to manage because we are all remote.  We are beginning to return to the office, but very much of a skeleton office staff.  I am asking him to return to the office before others so I have a chance to see if he shows up on time.  My question is do I have to start over or can I pick up where the warning left off pre-pandemic?  And do I need to tell him that I want him back earlier than the others (because of his unreliability issue)?

Thank you.

A:  You sound like a thoughtful and smart supervisor.  It is important to proactively address and document performance concerns.

I consulted Attorney Samantha C. Halem, a partner at Marshall Halem.  Halem’s practice focuses on providing employment advice to a wide range of employers.  Halem advises that you are not required to start over and that you can pick up where you left off.  Halem explains: “The life cycle of an employee has many ups and downs and documented performance issues can and should stay in an employee’s personnel file.  There are some employer policies and union contracts that may require that warnings be removed if an employee has had no incidents during a certain period of time, but those are less common nowadays and very rare in an office environment.  Even if you are subject to such a policy, that should not stop you from continuing to counsel the employee based on prior conduct.”

Halem and I both agree that you should you should meet with the employee (virtually or in person) to welcome him back to the office, but also be certain to communicate that you remain concerned about some of the performance and attendance issues you saw before the office shut down and that you hope that these issues are behind him.  Mention any concerns that you observed while he was working remotely.  Outline your expectations for his role.  You can also explain that his prior performance deficiencies make it all the more important that he return to work in the office.  Halem and I also suggest that you follow up with a written document outlining what you discussed.  Halem offers an additional piece of advice, “The tenor of the verbal and written communication should be that you believe he is capable of turning around any past deficiencies and moving forward positively.”

Halem cautions that if he raises any disability, medical, or familial issue in relation to returning to the office, it may be wise to seek legal advice.

Throughout the coming months, continue to observe and give feedback, both positive and negative.  Document if needed.  You will likely be able to make a determination in the next few months, whether or not he is able to succeed in this role.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.