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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

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.

New Players = New Employees

As many of you know by now, I like to draw a lot of comparisons from my basketball coaching experiences to what we see and experience in the business world. My most recent team experience has highlighted a major need that business leaders today can focus on when it comes to their leadership traits. That is, the need to provide clear direction for your (new) employees – not earth shattering I know, but very relevant and needed.

Basketball CourtWe have just started our basketball season and this year half of my team is new to basketball – we are talking about 10-12 year old girls that have never played before. So never mind skills development, they need to learn the rules of basketball! Regardless, they are a group that are hungry to learn and eager to work hard and do well – as is your typical new organizational hire.

In preparation for our first game of the year, as a team, we focused on some simple messaging during our initial practices. Each girl needed to know where to go on offence when she didn’t have the ball, what was expected of them when they did have the ball and they needed to know their positioning and role on defense. Pretty basic stuff, but a lot to take in, especially for first year players who only had two practices under their belt!

On game day, all things considered, things went quite well. The girls responded well to the instruction they had been given and showed a good sense of team cohesion in a short period of time. So what are the lessons learned here and why was our first game successful?

First off, as previously mentioned, teams need a clear sense of direction from their leader. The leader needs to remove confusing messaging, eliminate noise and distraction and provide its team/employees with a clear sense of direction. We didn’t over complicate things for the players – i.e. there was no work on screen plays, setting picks, fancy offensive plays, etc. We stuck to the fundamentals and made sure the players understood their individual roles and how that connected with what we were trying to do as a team. When it came to eliminating confusing message and noise, we had a parents meeting beforehand where we outlined expectations with them – parents parent and coaches coach. The only voice the players should hear during practice is that of the coach.

In the business world, good leaders do that too. They eliminate the distractions, provide their employees with clear performance expectations and they are able to connect that with what the team/department/organization is trying to accomplish. They make it clear to their (new) employees where their direction comes from and they focus on ensuring proper communication channels have been established.

A second link here is to make sure you set up your new/inexperienced players (and employees) for success on Day 1. That is, you need to place them in situations where you know they can excel when they first start out with you. The players that we have that struggled with dribbling and ball control were not asked to do so during the 1st game (practice will get them there.) Likewise, with new employees, it is all about placing them in situations that will leverage the knowledge, skills and abilities they are bringing to your company. If you hired someone to be a Java programmer, don’t ask them to administer an Oracle database their first day on the job!

Finally, it is all about the environment/culture that is established by the leader. For our girls, at the start of the game, we let them know about the expectations for the game. They were to try their best and always hustle, they need to try and apply what we taught them in practice and they needed to know that we were there to have fun as a TEAM. We weren’t worried about mistakes or doing things “wrong.” It was to get some playing experience as a team and learn from what we did during the game.

The lesson learned here? Once a leader establishes team norms and expectations and eliminates the fear of failure, they have set their team up for initial success. Our team is expected to complete to win (like any good business would do) but they also do so without fear of failure. There is no “punishment” for failing or not being able to do something. They are encourage to step out of their comfort zone and try to do things they did not/could not do before so they can grow as players. Just because they didn’t do it right (i.e. inbound the ball correctly) doesn’t mean they don’t get to do it again.

The same goes in the business world, good leaders need to provide a safe environment where their employees can take risks so they can grow and develop. As leaders, we need to provide them with opportunities where, if they fail, they have not taken a step back in their career. In fact, we need to look at these “failures” as learning experiences from which they can grow and become better team members/employees. This is the only way our employees will grow, develop and prosper. Bottom line – the leader has to establish a “winning” culture.

Finally, as leaders, we need to remember that it isn’t always about us teaching our employees (team members), we can also learn from them. We do so by listening, observing and adapting how we interact with our players/employees. Our own leadership style grows and improves as we learn to work with players/employees with different backgrounds and learning styles. That is how we grow as leaders…and as coaches! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Start, Stop, Continue

I recently spoke at a professional engineering conference on the topic of performance management. The gist of my presentation focused on providing technical managers with practical tips, tools and suggestions to help them better manage employee performance while aligning with organizational and departmental goals. The session ended being quite interactive and of course, the “best” questions came after I was done presenting when many folks wanted to ask specific questions that pertained to their role and their business.

Start StopHere is what I learned or at least what was reconfirmed for me after speaking with the attendees – almost everyone struggles with managing employee performance in some capacity or another. For some, it is the struggle to have the difficult conversations and/or to deal with the performance feedback they receive from their employees. For others, it is dealing with a lack of organizational support when it comes to communicating goals and holding staff accountable.

Here is the real interesting part, while I provided the audience with several tools and tips to manage performance while focusing a lot of goal alignment (organization – departmental – individual) there was still something missing. What I found out, while interacting with the audience, is that there is still a very real struggle to simply talk to employees about basic elements of performance – whether or not you have goal alignment, performance management tools or feedback training. The bottom line is that for many of these managers, it is a constant struggle just to initially engage in a conversation with staff to talk about performance, all of which is exacerbated if there is a lack of organizational commitment to performance management and goal alignment.

So, in order to make sure that my audience left the presentation still feeling good about their ability to tackle managing performance, I had to dig down real deep in the old HR tool box to give them something tangible they could walk away with and apply on the job. One of the best conversation starters/trust building activities I learned in my career is the Start, Stop, Continue discussion. Not sure where I learned this from so my apologies to the creator of it; however, it is a fantastic way to start discussions with employees.

You see, effective employee conversations are all predicated on trust. Employees need to trust in the feedback that you are giving, trust that you will keep your word and trust that you will support them in helping them to grow and develop. Hence, the Start, Stop, Continue meeting (SSC for short), is a great way to get the ball rolling in this area. Essentially, you have to start by having regular dialogue with your staff. This way, having 1:1 discussions with employees is just a regular part of how you do business and it doesn’t just occur when someone has screwed up! Assuming this has taken place, and in order to transition into a SSC discussion, your dialogue should go something like this:

“Sue, my goal is to make this department (more) effective – one in which employees want to contribute and are rewarded for their performance. In order to do this, I need input from you and all the other employees. So here is my question to you: in order to help you be more effective in your role and contribute to the team success, what is one thing that we, as a department, need to START doing immediately, what is one thing we need to STOP doing immediately and what is one thing we need to make sure we CONTINUE doing?”

Regardless of where you are as a team or organization in the performance management maturity model, you can always have these types of discussions with your employees. They open up lines of communication, build trust and enhance your credibility as a leader. Now, there is one important caveat to all of this – you have to follow through on the fixes. If the START or STOP items are things you can control or do, then you have to follow through. Otherwise, there will be no trust established and future conversations with you will be seen as a waste of time. Focus on the controllables, (not large organizational things that are beyond your scope) smaller, more tactical items that are geared towards making employees’ jobs, lives and expected performance easier to deliver on. By doing this, you will be able to better transition into more effective performance dialogue with your employees. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Working around the problem

While I blog a lot about management and leadership, I certainly don’t want to give anyone the impression that I am some sort of infallible person. A lot of my posts are based on personal experience – whether it be something I was directly or indirectly involved with or observed, or perhaps even based on mistakes and lessons learned by myself! A lot of what I share on The Armchair HR Manager is done with the hope that others can learn from the mistakes that either myself or others have made so that we can all become better managers and hopefully better leaders based on lessons learned.

Business ManAs I have already mentioned, I am by no means perfect; however, there are some basic tenants of management that I see “violated” on a regular basis that absolutely drive me crazy. A big “no no” in the management world is trying to work around a problem instead of going to the person (direct report) themselves and identifying the issue. I have seen and heard far too many instances of managers and so called “leaders” taking these indirect, back door paths to resolve issues. What ends up happening is that they end up involving far too many other people in the problem that shouldn’t be involved in the first place.

This type of approach (working around the problem) does several (negative) things:

  1. It erodes at the core of any performance system and culture you have in place. By constantly working around problems, no one is ever accountable for anything.
  2. It creates a culture fueled by rumours, gossip, innuendo and fear-mongering. People hear that their boss has an issue with them…but they hear about it 2nd and 3rd hand and start making plans for their “defense.”
  3. It puts peers in very awkward situations – they know about a problem with their peer before their peer does and they are now being asked to provide a solution (work around) to things. It could be perceived, once everything comes out, (and believe me it will) that they too were part of the problem in working around the other employee.
  4. It completely breaks down any type of trust in the manager/employee relationship. Here is the real problem with this one – people want to work for managers they can trust. It is THE most important part of the relationship. If they don’t trust their manager, they will eventually leave…simple as that.

So as a manager, if you want to be a real leader, stop working around the problem and the people. If there is performance or conduct issue, discuss it with your employee directly. You need to clearly identify the behaviours or performance outcomes that are the issue. Identify how they are negatively impacting performance (whether that of the employee or the company) and also show the impact on peers, organizational culture, etc. Link it all up and clearly communicate the desired change you are looking for.

These conversations aren’t comfortable and no one looks forward to having them; however, they are integral part of being a decent manager. You owe it to yourself, your team and your company to NOT work around problems and people. By not doing this, you are establishing a culture of performance and accountability. Truth be told, you may be surprised by your employee’s reaction when you actually communicate the issue to them directly. They may be far more receptive than you think. At the very least, other members of your team will respect you more and view as more of a leader than just their manager.

At its core, this is about managerial COURAGE. I am sorry if you don’t like conflict and don’t have the courage to talk to someone about these types of issues face to face. At the end of the day, you are getting paid to be a manager and this is a BIG part of being a manager so you need to suck it up and forge ahead. If you don’t have the courage (and that is okay) it is probably time to start to think about moving back to an individual contributor role. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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