Performance Management:
Preparing for Bad News in the Workplace

There are people who choose to ignore impending disaster in their personal lives.  They may do everything from making outlandish excuses for disturbed children to turning a blind eye to a spouse's irresponsible spending.  And in their personal lives, they are certainly free to take the courses they choose.  The problem arises, however, when the same kind of avoiding behavior spills over into the work place.  Why does this happen?  It's pretty simple.  We don't like to confront problems, so sometimes the way we deal with them is to ignore or minimize them.  Unfortunately, this doesn't mean they will go away or improve on their own.

Senior Human Resources professionals have all had the experience of a frustrated manager suddenly wanting to lower the boom on a poorly performing employee.  If the HR professional is doing his job, he will ask a few questions immediately.  First, has this employee performed this way before?  If so, how has it been handled?  Have other employees done this same thing?  How were those handled?  What kind of training has the employee had so he knows this performance isn't acceptable?  When did he have it, and can you document that he had it?  Some managers reading this will be squirming in their seats about now.  Why?  Because they saw the poor performance in the past and didn't address it.  Or they let the same things slide with other employees.  Or there are sloppy or even non-existent training records.  Or, (my personal favorite), they claim to have had previous conversations with this employee but have never documented those conversations.  So the HR professional tells the manager he can't terminate this employee, and may not even be able to severely discipline him!

Well, the HR professional has not lost his mind, as it may seem on the surface.  Employment law is complex, and so are labor contracts.  Any HR professional doing his job will want to make sure that the employer is handling employment and discipline issues consistently and correctly.  How is this done?  It's actually pretty simple to explain, but may be far more difficult to follow through on.  Managers are responsible for directing and monitoring and evaluating the performance of their subordinates EVERY day, not just the day of the annual performance review.  Most managers immediately say they don't have time to do this.  And if you don't do it well and consistently, it is time-consuming. 

Different tactics work for different managers.  I know one man who keeps a box of index cards in his desk, with one card for each employee he managers.  Each index card has two sides.  When he observes a positive outcome or behavior, it goes on one side of the card.  Negative or questionable observations go on the other side, and all observations are dated.  Obviously, this system takes some discipline on the part of the manager, but can you imagine how invaluable these records are when the manager wants to promote someone, or when he wants to do a less than stellar performance evaluation?  Try it for a week. 

I work with another manager who uses dated pages in a notebook to write down any significant issues throughout each day.  This works well for him to track trends in production, but it's a little more difficult to sift out the performance-related issues on the pages from all the other data he's collecting.  Still another manager I work with carries a little pocket notebook around and jots down observations in it all day each day.  Again, this may seem a little tedious, but it works for this man.

Now, let's suppose you have the documentation issue under control, and many managers do.  Your next hurdle is to actually act on the information you've collected.  Consider a once a month look-back over the data you've collected.  If there are problems surfacing, talk to the employee involved.  Confirm he understands what he's supposed to be doing, and that he has to tools he needs to do his job.  Ask him to provide some solutions and strategies, and let you know what those are.  Make a record of your conversation.  This process works well because you are asking the employee to proactively work on the shortfalls you observed.  His problem, not yours, in other words.  The value of this stance is not to "catch" an employee, but to make sure he understands that his performance is his responsibility.

Many companies recommend a twice-yearly formal review with employees.  This may be fine for employees who are performing well, but even with those people I'd recommend at least a short quarterly face to face meeting.  One of the things employees complain about most often is not receiving feedback or encouragement for the work they are doing.  So if you are meeting at least quarterly with each employee, you can help steer problematic performance and can reward and encourage good performance.

The frequency of meetings must be higher when you are dealing with significant performance problems---even if those meetings are difficult.  Many mangers agonize over a written plan to improve performance.  They present it to the employee.  This is a difficult meeting.  Then, the manager loses whatever ground could have been gained by not meeting about the issues again for months, or even not until the next review.  Many employees would assume that "no news is good news," so they will be understandably angry if the review of their performance continues to be negative.  And what if they really have improved their performance?  How are they supposed to know that unless they are told?   So regardless of the outcome of the intervention, the manager must continue to communicate regularly with the employee in question, even when such communication could contain bad news.

Sometimes, an employee and a Company simply are not a good fit.  The employee may be trying, or may simply not want to work the way the company requires him to work.  This is never an easy conclusion to come to.  But if the manager is documenting issues and meeting regularly with employees about those issues, dealing with an eventual termination will be far, far less traumatic for all involved.  In fact, if an employee and manager meet over a number of months about performance improvement, and it just isn't working, many employees will be actively seeking other employment and will leave your company on their own before termination becomes a reality.  But if managers avoid confronting bad news with employees, or having those difficult meetings, they can be assured that the issues will continue to get worse, not better.

Information is for educational and informational purposes only and is not be interpreted as financial or legal advice. This does not represent a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold any security. Please consult your financial advisor.