This week’s HR Highlight is a little different…usually we explore specific employment issues, compliance pressures, correct procedures and tips.  This week I am posing a question that has been plaguing me for my whole career…why do we wait?  Why, as managers of people, do we wait until things are at the worst before we act?  Short answer…because we don’t like conflict – but our tendency to wait is causing more conflict, hurting morale, costing us good people and costing us money!

As managers of people we understand that poor performance rarely turns up overnight.  There is a pattern of small issues that pester us for weeks, months and years before we crack and say ‘Enough!’.

So why is it that we have to crack before we will talk to our staff about shaping up?  Or if we are talking to them, why is it we wait for a major incident or the whole work group to start complaining before we make these informal performance discussions more formal, before we write them down?

Managing people is what we do – we know it is an everyday task, not something that is done just at Performance Review Time, so why do we resist doing it everyday?  No one is perfect, and everyone does things at work that grate on other people, that are not quite the right way, not quite on the right time – why can we not embrace this and talk to our staff informally and frequently about the small performance issues, before they become insurmountable?

The short answer is of cause we can.  And we should!

The primary cause for conflict in the workplace, particularly conflict leading to a person leaving employment is not bullying or dissatisfaction, it is personality difference.  These small things – like how loud someone listens to music at their desk, the way someone answers the phone, the fact that someone always stocks the fridge out of order, the fact that someone always shortens everyone’s name – can have a cumulative effect on morale and perceptions of performance success.

We are losing good people, at great cost, because we are not addressing these little things.  Similarly ‘star performers’ are spiraling toward poor performance because complacency creeps in when they feel no one is watching and appreciating what they do.  These are real issues that are effecting your business right now, at all levels.  These are real issues that are costing you money.  Moreover they are easy to address, if there is a mechanism for it.

ALBO:  A Little Bit Often

Sure it seems a bit much to call a formal performance meeting, with support persons and all of the rigmarole, out of the blue, to discuss the fact that Ted is always shortening everyone’s name and its interfering with morale and thus work performance.  But that is only because we typically put off these unpleasant meetings until it is over a topic so disruptive, dangerous or undesirable that there is no choice but to have the discussion.

But if we establish a mechanism for open discussion, or institute a policy of ‘Catching Up’ with staff on their performance, the good, the bad and the idiosyncratic, on a more regular semi formal basis, then most performance issues can be addressed before they become disruptive, saving a star performer and saving the money of finding, training and integrating a new person.  Or patterns of truly disruptive behavior can be and addressed established earlier.

Think Budgets

As managers in charge of a budget we do not wait for a project to be delivered before checking if it was on budget.  We don’t wait until the end of the year to look at the balance sheet and discuss controls with cost center managers.  If we did there would be anarchy!  No, when it comes to money we make this a daily, weekly, monthly task – as do our managers and stakeholders.  As managers we are active, involved and engaged in the day to day management of money… so why do we wait with people?

Less Performance Review, more Employment Toolkbox Talk

Part of the problem is uncertainty or fear of getting it wrong.  There is such a myriad of court cases where incorrect procedure, poorly worded performance letters and conversations have led to unfair dismissals and adverse action penalties.  This should not be a reason to engage with staff on performance less often, but more often!  We need to remove the awkward, annual, clinical nature of the Performance Review in favour of a more incremental, informal, natural Employment Toolbox Talk.  These ‘Catch Ups’ should be part of everyday working life – not an oddity to be feared on both sides of the desk.

So How?

There are as many ways to integrate some active performance management into a business as there are businesses.  This is not rocket science.  It is about making new habits.  It will be awkward and odd at first, forced and time consuming.  But if you persist you will find the benefits in staff focus, morale, productivity, job satisfaction and overall performance are well worth it.  Further when you have incident based performance issues, such as bullying or safety issues, they can be addressed in a known and familiar format that will facilitate the best possible outcomes for the business and staff.

A 5-minute phone call once a fortnight followed by an email is a good place to start, particularly if staff are remote.  ‘Catch Ups’ should follow a simple structure:

Task review from manager

This is where you address immediate performance.  If there have been issues in the past that are being actively managed then they would be raised here as a pattern, but if there are no issues on the table then just look at the short period between catch ups and focus discussions on that time period.  Including a review of the task completion, quality, satisfaction of management etc as appropriate, followed by an invitation for feedback from the staff on how they found the tasks and how they feel about coming tasks.  This is a great opportunity to discuss upcoming tasks, events, projects, promotions, work changes etc.  “From what I can see your tasks are _______.  Well done.  How did you find it?  Any issues you want to raise?  Also next week we have that new product launch, are you ready for that, do you have everything you need?”

Task feedback from staff

Remember listen, reflect your understanding – even if the issues raised are well understood limitations and ‘just have to live with it’ things, it helps to listen and let the staff know you have heard them and if appropriate explain that while their concerns are legitimate overall it is good for the business so the decision was made that ” for compliance we have to use the XYZ Widgets”

Other Items from manager

This is where you would address other items.  Remember to be specific, delicate and offer solutions.

For your star performer…this is an employee that is in all other respects a great staff member so as a manager you are there to highlight things they may not be aware of, or may not be aware are effecting others at work, and to assist them in rectifying them…  “In terms of other items I need to raise with you some issues this week with your break times.  I have noticed that your morning tea breaks have been creeping from 15 minutes to 30 minutes.  I know that this isn’t normal for you so I thought I would start by asking if there is anything wrong, anything I can help you with?”

For your repeat offender…this is an employee that is doing the work but has a laundry list of issues that need to be worked on,, so as a manager you are there to coach them through their laundry list… “In terms of other items I need to review our list from last week with you.  In terms of start times, you have started on time every day this week…that’s great, that’s what we need to see.  We will continue to monitor this one for another month or so – so keep it up.  In terms of your shift clearing checklist though, I see that you did not complete the cleaning tasks at the Friday shift, was there a reason for that?  When I write this Catch Up email to you I am going to note that this will be the third week in a row you have not completed the cleaning tasks.  You know that is a pattern of behavior that amounts to poor performance.  With this and the other patterns the business has to look at if you are right to keep in the role.  I understand that you are working on it and I am working with you, but I need to see improvement in this area, there has been improvement in all of the other areas.  Ok we will monitor this one for another 2 months and I will note in the Catch Up email that you understand that if this continues it is likely to end in termination.”

Other Items feedback from staff

Again listen and reflect understanding

Follow up with a short email

Dear ___________,  Thank you for another great Catch Up, it is great to take some time out to talk to you about the last couple of weeks.  As we discussed I was very happy to see that _________ and to hear that you found it ________.  Regarding the next fortnight we are all working towards the ____________ and I note that you highlighted that you have not yet received the _________ training because you were off sick on the day of the Toolbox Talk.  I will pop around during your next shift to go through the details with you so you are all set for next week.  In terms of other items as we discussed there have been some late starts this week.  As we covered tardiness is not acceptable, particularly with no notice.  I recognise that you have never had an issue with shift starts before, however as we discussed there is a serious knock on effect to all staff, so you need to ensure you follow procedure and let me know as soon as you know you are going to be late.  In this instance I accept your explanation that rolling blackouts resulted in a series of missed alarms.  We’ve had them at my house too!  But in the future it is imperative that you call to let me know as soon as you wake so that I can arrange cover as soon as possible.  The leave policy is important and if this becomes a habit then it may result in a pattern of behavior that amounts to failure to follow lawful instructions which could result in termination.  I do hope we don’t get to that point, you have my number, call as soon as you can.  Again thanks for a great catch up and please let me know if anything comes up, see you next shift!

Dialogue not Discussion

Performance and satisfaction at work are not the topics of a discussion to be had once a year, rather they are the dialogue that becomes the language that management and staff share.  Performance can not and should not be separated from the everyday tasks and conversations of work – performance management is not the finish line….it is the whole race and management and staff run it together.
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