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The Best Legal Advice I Ever Received

Before I get into the guts of this post, keep in mind that this is a human resources and leadership focused blog and is not mean to convey legal advice of any kind. Think of it as one person sharing their experience in the jungle of human resources! With that being said, as HR Professionals (and depending on the industry in which we work) we often have cause to interact with employment law lawyers…sometimes on a regular basis. I remember back in my heyday of working in the call centre industry, I think I had our outside counsel on speed dial!

write-a-chequeHaving said that, I have had an opportunity to deal with a myriad of (potential) legal cases during my career: some of which were driven by the (ex) employee and some that were probably driven by the employer side. Regardless, I have seen it all from the dismissal side: attendance/absenteeism, tardiness, harassment, performance, conduct of all types, etc. Here is the challenge on the employer side, unless there is something so blatant and so egregious, it isn’t a simple matter of terminating an employee for cause. I have had this discussion with managers a million times during my career. I always end up asking the same questions:

Did you have a conversation with the employee to address the issue?

Why not?

When you did, did you document it?

Did you follow up with them the next time “it” happened?

Why not?

Did you address it the “next” time?

Did you document it?

Did they know their employment was in jeopardy?

The list goes on, but this is pretty typical. You see, most managers just want the employee problem to go away. Whatever the “problem” is, they just want it gone. Chronically absent or late employee? Make them go away! Underperforming employee? Make them go away! Difficult to get along with and/or co-workers can’t stand them? Make them go away!

Managers don’t want to deal with this stuff, despite how much you might coach and prepare them. They have a ton of pressure on them to deliver product, goals, service, etc. with understaffed departments, so the last thing they want to deal with is the stuff above. Most HR Pros try to coach the manager through the situation. They coach them on how to have the proper conversations, how to document, how to provide the right warnings, etc. Here is the thing; 99 times out of 100 the outcome is inevitable! The manager will simply comply for a while so that they can finally get you to support them in a termination decision!

Having worked through many difficult, complex employee relations situations, I always default back to the stance of whether or not the manager truly wants to ‘save’ the employee and/or if the employee wants to be saved. All of which brings me to the best legal advice I ever received from outside counsel years ago. Their advice was this, “If you think (HR/the manager), after all this documentation and counselling, the end result is ultimately going to be termination, then just write them (the employee) a cheque…it is far easier, less complex and less time consuming.”

Think about that, how much easier and less complex would our lives be if we followed that approach! No more charades or games. No more managers pretending to try and want to ‘save’ an employee and no more employees pretending that they want to be ‘saved.’ We could all just cut to the chase and solve things with some dollars!

Yes, I am being a bit facetious here; however, the point is this – let’s stop wasting time and effort. Many managers, when they hear that they could make a problem go away for $10 – $30K are often all ears. Then, reality sets in when they realize that comes off their bottom and/or there is no budget or special fund for that sort of thing! Often, at this point, the conversation turns back to how effectively manager the employee (which is where things probably broke down in the first place!)

Here is the thing, when you think about it, when you have a seriously underperforming employee or a conduct issue, $10K to make the problem go away isn’t much, especially when you are a $50M or $100M+ company! So, the next time you are dealing with one of these types of issues ask yourself (and the manager), are you TRULY COMMITTED to improving this situation? If so, then I am a big proponent in the coaching/performance management approach. If the answer is NO…then write a cheque.

Drops mic…

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of CarbonNYC/Flickr.com

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Going to the well once too often

Have you ever heard of the saying, “They went to the well once too often”? It is a 14th century saying that basically means that one shouldn’t repeat a risky action too often or push their luck too far. Unfortunately I have seen this expression play out when it comes to talent and performance management in the workplace. Organizations/managers tend to go to the well once too often with their best people.

Goint to the wellHere’s what I mean – in any given organization, somewhere between 10%-30% of your employees are your top performers or your “best.” The rest of your talent is somewhere between average to good with a small percentage of your staff that are “not quite cutting it.” Those are completely unscientific facts based simply on years of HR work experience; however, since this is my blog, I am allowed to make up stats! I do feel confident that most people would probably agree that if you were managing a department of 10 – 20 people, about 3-6 of them are your “go to” folks. So there you have it, the math works!

Here is the danger in what I have seen/dealt with in my experience. During tough times or boom times (the approach tends to be the same during both) organizations tend to over rely on their best people. Instead of “stretching” their average to good performers, or god forbid, culling and replacing their poor performers, they tend to heap more responsibilities on their best people. Companies and managers tend to continue to push and ask for more and more from their best folks. They take performance excellence for granted. Why do they do this? Because their best people continue to deliver!

You see, those elite folks that you have are driven by a desire to succeed. They never want to fail and they take great pride in their professional brand. However, this approach to mis-managing top talent this way comes with a cost. Sure, you will have a few of your best folks that will be vocal about things. They will be loud and clear about how unhappy they are with the current situation. Most will suffer in silence though. They will put on the brave face as they continue to work more and more hours. They might politely ask for help/more resources or they might possibly express some veiled concern about not being able to deliver. Most won’t say anything though. They will soldier on through. There might be more requests for vacation days and/or sick days as they try and recoup and recharge for the continued onslaught of demands. Most managers won’t clue into this though as they will be too busy continuing to add to the work demands and show their leaders that “they” can deliver.

Beware though – there is a tipping point. You can’t continue to go to the well time and time again with your best people. You see, your best people have options. They can get other jobs. They can and will leave. They don’t have to put up with the incessant demands and unrealistic expectations. Your poor to average performers – they will stay because they usually don’t have options or at least not as many options. If your best talent leaves, are you going to ask more of your poorer performing employees? I doubt it and if the answer was “yes,” then why aren’t you asking for more now instead of jeopardizing the retention of your best folks?

At the very least, in the short term, you had best be rewarding and compensating your best people for their ongoing extra efforts. You can rest assured, that if they have done all the heaving lifting for a 6-12 month stretch (or longer) and all that is in it for them is a 2.5% raise, then you won’t have them for much longer! Don’t go to that (top talent) well once too often. Recognize the warning signs, performance manage the low performers and “stretch” your average to good performers. Those that excel will become part of your elite talent group. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com/Tom Sodoge

Focus on your SOB’s!

This title may be a bit misleading but it is great for marketing purposes! Traditional thinking is that, as a manager, you need to shift your focus and spend more of your time and energy focusing on your best people, so I can see why you would be confused if I am now telling you to focus on your SOB’s! I know what you are thinking – “but Scott, that isn’t what I call my poor performers! I can’t say that, I will get in trouble with HR!” I am sure you have other code names for them…but I digress.

Angry ManNo, in this case the SOB’s I want you to focus on are Specific, Observable, Behaviours. One of the biggest management challenges I see is the lack of feedback and performance based discussions that take place between a manager and their employees. Far too many managers and employees are quick to complain about their organization’s performance management system (justifiably so in most cases) as the source of all evil, when in fact, because the front end coaching and communication between manager and employee is so non-existent, the root cause lies there.

We tend to not equip our managers with the proper tools to actually communicate with and coach employees. They get bogged down in process, forms, compliance, complicated goals and objectives and pie in the sky metrics. The reality is that everything starts with having a conversation with your employees. Simply put, employees want and need feedback on their performance and the easiest way to do this is to focus on what you are observing (good or bad) as far as their behaviours and outcomes go. This generates conversation which leads to a coaching opportunity.

I am a firm believer in focusing on HOW work is done more so then so then WHAT work is done. I believe that if you have employees with the right approach to completing their work, you can always train them on skills gaps. Alternatively, you may have someone who delivers work of the highest quality; however, they are a complete a**hole to deal with and leave a trail of bodies behind them every day. This type of person is toxic and should not be in your organization – but that is a post for another day.

For most of us, we deal with folks who are somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. Most of the time they display the right approach to work and most of the time they deliver. Focusing on the specific behaviours you want to see is how you get your people going in the right direction – all of the time. Talk to them about HOW their work (goals) gets done (completed). Identify WHAT you want to see from them. Communicate and coach them on these behaviours. Coach up when they are demonstrating things you do not want to see. Coach for reinforcement when they display what you want to see.

When coaching, give examples – be SPECIFIC. Employees need to know EXACTLY what they are doing well and where they need to improve. The key to this is to identify, in advance, what successes looks like for that employee in that role. That is, as the manager, you need to identify what behaviours you want to see and outline what that looks like (success) – this way, the employee has a clear idea as to what the expected outcomes are and there won’t be any surprises when they receive feedback from you. Essentially, the pre-determined behavioural outcomes become your anchoring statements every time you coach. That is, you are always referring back to these as the game plan and deviations from the game plan are rooted in the coaching conversations you have with your staff.

So, if you are looking to simplify your coaching conversations with your staff, remember to focus on the SOB’s – Specific Observable Behaviours. With an acronym like that, you won’t ever forget! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. Best of luck dealing with your SOB’s!

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/imagerymajestic

The Top Talent Test (T3)

Organizations have many ways of identifying who their best people are or who their “top talent” is. It runs the gamut from companies conducting panel interviews, large scale calibration sessions and conducting predictive testing on who they think is “the best.” Now, I am not here to disparage any type of program or process that focuses on identifying, developing and retaining key employees. In fact, if you work for an organization that has ANY type of talent management practice in this area, you are already way ahead of the curve.

However, I am here to caution that often in our zeal to be ahead of the curve and rollout the next generation talent management practice(s), we often fail to hit the mark a bit and overly complicate the issue. To be perfectly blunt, if as a manager and leader I am doing my job properly, I know who my best people are (in terms of exceeding goals and delivering additional value) because I talk to them on a regular basis. We set goals, we set metrics and we have coaching sessions. Yes, there are many intangibles as well that need to be identified – the ability to innovate, demonstrated continual learning, coachability and desire to “be more”; however at the end of the day it comes down to the manager knowing their people because they TALK to them.

Talent management

I personally have a very clear line of demarcation that puts an employee on one side of the “top talent” line or the other. Quite simply, it has been my experience that the very best performers and “top talent” are those that want and crave accountability. Let me explain a bit further by looking at this through a different lens.

In many companies you will find top talent chameleons. These are the employees that have the ability to set themselves up to perform in areas they know they are strong in and avoid areas that they aren’t as good at. They know their shortcomings, but they are skilled at avoiding situations that they think will expose them. So, they pass on assignments that will stretch them, while continuing to excel in their current comfort zone. They are adept at focusing on what they want when they want to. Here is the key; you expose them by making them accountable. If you have identified someone as top talent but they avoid being accountable for anything…then I hate to tell you, but they are not top talent.

I have seen in many organizations the types that know how to get noticed and how to talk the talk and walk the walk; however, they are able to skate along because there is no accountability established. The manager has failed to set any solid goals and objectives, there are no measurements of success and no lessons learned due to failure. When approached about establishing goals and committing to delivering on something, you are met with nebulous explanations about resource issues, non-commitments from others and vague references to organizational shortcomings impacting their ability to deliver. You see, they are happy with the status quo. They love being able to act their way through things and let you “see” them as being a rising star, excelling at whatever it is they do.

Don’t accept this. As a leader, use the accountability test. Your very best people will thank you for it. Once they have been given accountability to deliver on something, the very best will go at their assignment with vim and vigor! They want the challenge and they are prepared to speak to their successes as well as their short comings. They are not afraid to fail as they see stretching and potentially failing all part of growing. Your best talent knows how to learn from failure and apply it against future situations.

So, the next time you think you have identified someone as “top talent” use the accountability test. You need to make sure you aren’t operating under false perceptions but in reality. Sit down with them; put their development plan and stretch objectives on paper. Tell them how their success will be measured. Tell them they are accountable…then wait for their response. Then, and only then, will you really know if that person is, in fact, top talent. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Performance Reviews – Here to stay?

A lot is being written about the potential demise of performance reviews. A lot of experts, consultants and prognosticators feel that the traditional performance review is on its way out, or at the very least, it should be on its way out as it is an antiquated approach. I have been involved with performance management for the better part of 19+ years (yowzers that hurt to write that!) and feel somewhat qualified to weigh in on this issue.

Performance Words

Personally, I really don’t have a probably with performance reviews and I feel if done in the right context with properly trained managers they can be quite valuable. I am not a fan of lengthy forms that make managers write a small novel in order to have a proper performance review done.   My take/approach on performance reviews is that they provide a great baseline and are an essential roadmap that the manager and employee can refer to throughout the year that clearly outlines what is expected of the employee and how it aligns with broader departmental and organizational objectives. Simply put, an effective performance review (form) should include:

  • The identification of the organizational &/or departmental goals and objectives
  • The employee’s individual goals/objectives (with clear linkage to departmental level goals)
  • Measurements/KPI’s of these goals
  • Supported with coaching/feedback

So, if I were to design my own form, it would essentially be 1-2 pager tops, with a focus on these elements and supported with regular coaching. I believe all the discussions around development and career goals can and should be separate from the actual performance review itself as the review is to discuss just that, performance and not career planning. Now, I get it – if performance isn’t up to par, then the other discussion about future career goals can’t take place. But again, the performance discussion is the right time and place to talk about this performance gap and its (potential) impact.

Now, for those that advocate that you can get rid of performance reviews all together, I think that may be possible but a lot has to change organizationally and culturally speaking. At minimum, performance reviews provide a guaranteed annual check in between manager and employee. There is a measure of visibility and accountability with a performance review and I believe that is needed in most, if not all, organizations. If you are going to advocate to get rid of performance reviews, then you better make damn sure you have a coaching culture at your organization. Essentially, with no performance reviews, you need to make sure that your managers are TALKING to their employees on a regular basis and providing specific feedback to them. If not, at minimum, you still need a performance review to help guide these discussions.

Based on my experience, there are very few organizations that can make the claim that they have such a strong corporate coaching culture that they have been able to scrap performances reviews alltogether. Such a fundamental shift requires strong leadership at the top, highly effective organizational communication and accountability and a desire for change. Those elements are extremely difficult to align at the best of times; therefore, I believe performance reviews are here to stay…at least for a while. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

One of the most challenging aspects of our jobs as leaders and managers is to provide feedback to our employees. As HR Pros, the challenge is often more difficult as we are often called upon to enable feedback when the employee doesn’t even report to us. Quite often, we are even coaching a manager on how to have the feedback conversation with their employee, or better yet, employees often come to us for “feedback” because they aren’t getting it from their manager or they want a “neutral” perspective.

You cant handle the truthRegardless, as leaders, providing candid feedback to our employees is a huge responsibility that we have, one that must be exercised with care, deliberation and foresight. The approach you take quite often depends on how well you know the employee that is either asking for and/or needs the feedback. The most important thing to consider, above all else, is that you must always tell the truth. HOW you deliver the truth is where the real art form comes in to play as a leader.

The other little secret I will let you in on when an employee asks for your feedback about their performance, etc. and they tell you they want the truth, is that the reality is that most employees can’t handle truth. Therefore, you need to truly understand the situation you are dealing with because you may be in for an explosive confrontation if not handled correctly. So, with all things leadership, it comes down to knowing your employee(s).

Sometimes the truth must be delivered in a very delicate fashion and sometimes you can go ahead and hit someone over the head with it. Everything comes down to relationships and how much trust you have built with the person asking for/needing the feedback. As I already mentioned, the reality is that most people can’t handle the truth when it comes to feedback. Even if the employee is a top performer, if you give them feedback on some things they need to improve/focus on, they probably won’t be able to handle everything you tell them. Let’s face it – the truth usually hurts. Star performers like to think they are star performers in all areas and poor performers don’t want someone to point where they are falling short because they probably already know where they are failing and don’t want to be reminded!

For the rest of your employees, hearing the truth often hurts. As human beings we don’t want to be reminded of our flaws and shortcomings. Many of us have spouses that remind us of those, so we don’t want to hear about it at work! But seriously, having these types of conversations are difficult at the best of times and it takes an awesome leader and coach to engage their staff in truthful feedback conversations.

So, what are the keys to success?

  1. Build effective relationships with your staff. Get to know them better – what makes them tick? What motivates them? Talk to them on a regular basis – including about non work stuff. It makes the hard conversations easier to have if you do this.
  2. Know the employee and what they can handle/accept. You will get a feel for this simply by the fact that you talk to them every day. (See point #1)
  3. Ease into the feedback conversations. Maybe you need to address three or four things with them, so start by talking about one thing only at the first meeting. If your first conversation is about giving them feedback in multiple areas, they are going to leave the meeting with you feeling like they just went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson!
  4. Focus on building trust. As a leader, you play a role in this. Provide support to the employee where they need it and follow up with them/check in as you have promised. The quickest way to lose credibility (and trust) with your staff is to give them feedback, tell them you will meet again in a week or two to discuss progress and then they never hear from you again. Worse yet, you parachute back in several months later to meet with them about more areas they need to improve on or to tell them that they have not made any improvements. Not cool! Of course they won’t be able to handle the truth because they don’t trust you!

Bottom line – giving and receiving feedback is hard. A lot of us can’t handle the truth. As much as I try and tell my wife that I can deal with whatever reason she is mad at me, the truth is, when she does tell me, it stings! We are all humans and have feelings. So take great care and accept the major responsibility you have as a leader when talking to your people. Respect the fact that they are human beings when you are delivering feedback to them. Focus on building relationships built on respect and trust – it will make these types of conversations much easier to have. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Don’t make the group pay for individual sins

One of the biggest short comings of ineffective managers is taking performance or conduct issues that they have with one or two individuals and making them a group or team issue. You know what I am talking about – a manager has a team of 10, of which 1 or 2 seem to have a problem coming to work on time. The next thing you know, there are memos and emails being issued about the need to arrive to work on time and it then becomes an agenda item in team meetings. Everyone is regularly lectured and threatened about the need for punctuality. The end result is that for the eight people that this doesn’t apply to, they become frustrated, resentful and angry about hearing this message (when everyone knows who it applies to) and the for the two people it does apply to – well, it goes right over their head.

SinThis is a common issue in many workplaces and with many managers. If individuals aren’t meeting their performance targets or goals, you have to have this coaching conversation with them 1:1. Making individual problems into group issues causes resentment, creates division and results in alienation of staff members. For the manager, it will cause them to lose the respect of their team, erodes trust and breaks down communication. Ultimately, people don’t feel appreciated and then they start to look at all the other areas in the workplace that irritate them and find ways to voice/express their displeasure. People who previously weren’t unhappy at work now become dissatisfied. This basically results in the proverbial Pandora’s Box being opened.

Case in point, a personal friend of mine recently relayed a story to me that supports this (information). She has been with her company for over 3 years now and for the most part is pretty happy, motivated and generally engaged in her job (which is a sales job). However, over the past two quarters, her local office has been under tremendous organizational pressure to meet sales targets for which they have been falling short. Primarily this has been due to turnover and the new(er) staff is just not experienced enough to make up the sales shortfall (and in some cases, are already disengaged themselves). Regardless, the problem exists and the Sales Manager (my friend’s boss) is feeling the heat. So, what does he do? As part of his regular staff meetings, he openly throws down to the group about how they are not meeting their targets, how they need to do more and for each week they are not meeting targets, everyone needs to come in on weekends to try and sell more so that the targets can be met. Pretty bad huh?

Of course my friend, along with over half the team who are meeting/exceeding their targets, is pretty P.O.’d about this message and treatment. She felt she was treated with disrespect and is now being “punished” along with everyone else, regardless of what her performance has been like. The second mistake the manager made was to have the top performer in the group get up and basically lecture the rest of the team on how she meets her targets and how if they did what she did, they would meet them too. This employee went on, without the manager stopping her, to lecture about how as a team there was no reason they couldn’t meet their targets and they all need to step up, blah blah blah. The manager concluded the meeting by basically telling the team, “You all need to copy/model what ‘Janie’ does so that you can all deliver higher sales volume.

Just when you think this story couldn’t get any worse it does and I will now show you the danger of making the group pay for individual sins. Unbeknownst to the manager, this “top” performer was actually manipulating the sales recording system to make herself look better. Yes, she is a great salesperson, but she found a way to record/bundle sales activity to make her hours sold look better than everyone else’s. Her peer group all knew it because she wasn’t very discreet about it and, up until this point, no one wanted to “rat out” a member of the team. The problem now is that because everyone was scolded and embarrassed and held up to false comparison, people came out swinging. The resulting fall out hasn’t been pretty. “Janie’s” methods have now been brought to the manager’s attention who now needs to figure out:

  1. How he is going to deal with this issue before it gets escalated above his position
  2. How he can repair the damage done to the team’s morale and his own credibility after he basically told the team they needed to model the behaviour of a cheater!

So you can now see the danger, as a manager, in making the entire team pay for the individual’s sins. Performance and conduct issues should be dealt with in private, 1:1, between manager and employee. You go to the group to solicit their help in solving a problem that is affecting everyone. Ask the group for solutions, input or support in something…don’t scold or lecture the group. If you do, the end result will never be what you are looking for. If in doubt, read this post again about what can happen if you take the wrong approach to the group! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of April/Flickr.com

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