I recently met a woman who is an HR manager for a fairly large company in Perth, Australia. Naturally, we began to compare notes. As we did so we both realized the many similar issues faced by her company and my clients. As we talked, one of the most strident comments she made was about her frustration with managers who demand that she dismiss one of their employees because of a performance issue* which they have failed to address over time. This is a, as she described it and I’ve seen it:
Department Manager: You need to fire Harry. His customer service stinks. He’s really abrupt and just doesn’t seem to think he needs to be attentive to what the customer tells him.
HR Manager: Is this new behavior for Harry?
Department Manager: No, he’s pretty much been that way for years.
HR Manager: So, why are you coming to me now?
Department Manager: He just insulted one of our best customers, who then contacted me. I just can’t tolerate that.
HR Manager: According to the performance appraisals you’ve done on him, his communication skills are “above average” and his ability to deal with customers is “good”. If his behavior with customers has been like this for years, why don’t his appraisals reflect that?
Department Manager: Well, he’s really good at explaining technical stuff to the customers. It’s just when things get testy that he gets bad. And, I just hate giving him anything less than an “above average” score because he gets so irritated and moody, and stays that way for weeks. It’s been easier just to give him good marks. But now I’ve had it. He has to go.
HR Manager: Sorry, we can’t do that. With years of good appraisals, and you telling me that his behavior hasn’t changed, we can’t suddenly fire him for doing what he’s always done when that’s been not only acceptable but good in the past.
What to do? It’s interesting that this is a familiar refrain across the globe. To avoid this situation, or to remedy it if you find yourself faced with it, here are some things you can do today:
- Be clear about the expectations you have for your employees in each area of their work.
- Be honest with employees at appraisal time. If they’re not living up to expectations, develop a plan to help them improve. Document plan implementation, and results.
- If you are imposing new standards (yes, you get to do that as long as they’re reasonable and clear) and expectations, tell your employees at the beginning of the appraisal cycle. This gives them time to change their behavior to meet your new expectations. Explain why you’re making the change, what kind of behavior you’ll expect in the future, and how you will help them make the change if help is needed.
Finally, realize that if you haven’t documented poor performance or, worse yet, have complimented it, you cannot suddenly turn around and discipline or dismiss an employee for that performance.
*A performance issue is an employee behavior issue that can be improved with coaching or training, e.g., communication skills or technical skills. This is different from a misconduct issue such as lying on timesheets, inappropriate use of the internet at work, or harassment which generally does not result from a lack of skill or training.
It’s a very frustrating situation, and one many of us have faced. Have you? Tell us what happened! ~ Daphne Schneider