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HR Handled Right

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This past Easter weekend, my seven-year-old finally asked me the dreaded question, ‘Mum, is there really an Easter bunny?’ There I was, stuck on the horns of a dilemma. To be honest, I’d never felt completely comfortable misleading my son, yet it was wonderful to see him hugging the man-disguised-as-the-Easter-bunny at egg hunts and building strategies about ways to catch him delivering presents. So, I rationalized that the end justified the means.

However, coming clean on the subject of the Easter Bunny is small potatoes in comparison to giving a bad performance review. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth – especially when it’s negative – which is why so many managers put off addressing performance management problems and why so many bad employees don’t get fired.

Every manager has, at some point in his or her career, dealt with unacceptable employee behavior. It could be someone who whines, assigns blame, worries incessantly, or watches the clock. It’s one of the most dreaded, complicated, and avoided situations supervisors encounter. There are numerous psychological reasons why managers fail to address poor performers, the co-workers’ resentment and the team dysfunction. Here are six of the most common:

Problem 1: The manager feels dependent upon the employee.

Sometimes, a poorly performing employee has some special talent or connection that makes them seem indispensable. In today’s tight lab our market, many managers continue to put time, money and energy into marginal staff members because they fear they won’t be able to find more competent ones.

Solution: Look at the big picture.

In truth, there is a huge performance gap between high and low performers in any organization – 30%-50% percent for unskilled jobs and up to 1000% for highly technical ones.

Poor performers, regardless of their technical merit, never justify their costs. To avoid this trap, recruiters should develop, and maintain, ongoing relationships with top recruiting sources. Keeping abreast of the job market, and keeping managers in the loop, can keep a manager from rationalizing his discipline avoidance with a ‘half the work of a technical genius is better than none’ argument.

Problem 2: The manager confuses discipline with punishment.

Managers don’t want to be put in the role of punitive parent or heavy-handed school principal, verbally rapping their misbehaving employees on the knuckles.

Solution: Provide skills training.

Managers who have this attitude generally don’t have the necessary performance management skills to apply positive and corrective discipline. When used appropriately, your discipline system doesn’t focus on punishing an employee for misdeeds, it provides a concrete opportunity for employees to take personal responsibility for their own behavior.

Problem 3: The manager feels sorry for the employee.

Perhaps the manager knows about a tough family situation or a recent divorce and doesn’t want to pile one problem on top of another.

Solution: Refer to appropriate resources.

It’s often the best managers that fall into this trap; because they genuinely care about their employees, they may become overly involved in their employees’ personal lives or emotional difficulties. As a result, it may be easier to make excuses for the poor performer rather than get him or her the professional help they need.

Managers can help avoid this trap by having a conversation with the employee about the employee’s observations of how well he/she is doing. Most people who can give an accurate assessment of their own work performance can identify areas needing improvement. Meet with the employee on a regular basis to assess his/her work more frequently and give immediate feedback. Urge the employee to use support facilities and help with the emotional/psychological aspects of the situation.

Problem 4: The manager has never told top management about the problem and/or convinced them of how serious it is.

Solution: HR needs to be involved.

Inform your manager as soon as an employee’s performance seems to call for intervention, even if you want to try to handle it alone. Review with your manager the criteria by which you ruled out unfairness factors as causes for unacceptable performance. Recount what you have done so far, and ask for coaching. Also, ask your manager to collaborate on a timetable for (a) ruling out all unfairness factors, (b) coaching and counseling the poor performer, and (c) taking action to separate should performance not improve.

Problem 5: The manager feels responsible for the employee’s poor performance.

For some managers, admitting that an employee has not met expectations signals some kind of failure for the manager. Could they have been so desperate to fill the position that potential problems were ignored during the interview or when references were checked? Often, managers blame themselves for a staff member’s failure, and are willing to do almost anything to insure the employee’s success.

Solution: Learn from your experience – But don’t pay for it:

First of all, it is impossible to completely predict a problem employee during the recruitment process – although there are some good clues. Some people are experts at creating a good impression, only to show little substance after they’re hired. Secondly, if your manager did err during the recruitment, learn from it. Perhaps your managers would benefit from interview skills training. Much better for a manager to learn from his or her mistakes than to pay penance by continuing to suffer a poor performer.

The costs of keeping poorly performing employees are significant. The direct costs include lost sales, customer dissatisfaction and damage to your reputation. Employees who have to pick up the slack feel resentful and lose their motivation. In addition, the manager loses any leg to stand on when it comes to expecting other employees to perform to reasonable standards.

Imagine what would happen if another manager confronted a different employee on anything.. say, poor attendance, drug use or even sleeping on the job? The employee could simply point to the poor performer and say, ‘As long as you let him get away with that, you can’t make me do anything’: the poorest performing employee always sets performance standards.

Managers can preach excellence but if an obvious problem is ignored, the words become an empty joke.

While a comprehensive treatise on effective discipline is beyond the scope of this article, there are a few rules of thumb worth keeping in mind when gearing up to face a problem employee.

  • Check for mixed messages. Is your compensation package consistent with your performance goals? If, for example, you financially reward employees for individual effort or encourage your sales staff to compete against each other, the odds are any attempt to create a productive team will fail. Employees who have unrealistically high performance goals may find that their ability to achieve them suffers when they take time out to help others. Before performance problems can be resolved, make sure that the formal culture is in sync with the informal culture.
  • Communicate credibly. All employees – especially workers with performance problems – need a steady stream of communication with their managers to get feedback on their performance. Managers must be specific about the changes they want, and gain commitment from the employee about specific actions and time frames for which they’ll be held accountable. Vague advice – ‘call me with any problems’ – doesn’t work, especially if the manager is usually unavailable when the employee calls. Managers need to ensure that they are available – in person, by phone, by e-mail, etc. – at times that work for both manager and employee.
  • Document, document, document. Be especially factual and concise in your interactions with anyone regarding the matter, regardless of what their job title or stated organizational role. Anything you do or say, including to peers and other employees, can be used to support a grievance or appeal. Therefore, it is best to start a written log of everything you do or say about a performance problem. If things improve, file the log. Do not discard it.

The Easter Bunny Revisited

Well, after sitting quietly for about 30 seconds after his question, I gave him a soul-searching look and said:

‘Would you really want to know?’

He was silent for a minute and then, looking at me squarely in the eyes, said:

‘Yes, I do. I kind of know already, mum, but I just want to hear it from you.’

So, I confessed, feeling a little sad and a little relieved, and he looked just as I’d imagined he would – a little sad and a little older.

Telling the truth can be difficult but it does have its rewards. Ideally, the primary objective of a performance improvement/ disciplinary conversation is to gain the employee’s agreement to change behavior and return to fully acceptable performance, just as telling your child a difficult truth helps build a foundation of trust and credibility. Even when mum isn’t ready to give up the Easter bunny.

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