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Dealing with performance issues

Posted by Bianca Strzelczyk  October 27, 2008 09:21 AM

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By Jamie Resker

Development and retention of employees has become an important goal of most HR managers, but success lies in getting managers to address the hard to discuss performance issues with their employees. When these performance issues, which are often behavioral in nature, are addressed with employees instead of being swept under the rug, managers also open up the potential for employee development and improved retention rates. Helping managers identify the one key performance issue, craft the right words for the discussion, and manage the discussion and outcomes is the best strategy for developing and retaining employees.

Managers will come up any excuse to rationalize their avoidance of addressing performance issues with employees, particularly those issues related to behavior. When the performance issue revolves around technical job skills, responsibilities and meeting goals, managers are usually very willing to raise, the issue with the employee. But when it comes to issues such as tone, approach, interpersonal skills or motivation the issue is typically avoided because managers are uncomfortable broaching the subject. While this avoidance can cause problems within the organization, i.e. nobody likes working with Sue because she's a jerk, it can also limit employee potential and contribution to the organizational goals. In other words, failure to address an employee performance issue not only does a disservice to the employee and their co-workers, but to the overall performance of the organization. Let's look at a case study example that clearly illustrates this problem.

Steve has been with a technology company for more than eight years going back to when they were a start-up. He is a talented, post-sale technical support engineer who knows the product inside and out and is invaluable in helping customers solve technical problems. But Steve wants to get out of technical support and into sales as a sales engineer. He sees a role for himself in the sales process, and wants to get out of the office and have the opportunity to make more money. Steve has expressed this interest to his boss, who also manages the entire sales organization. Steve's perspective is that he has the skills for a sales engineering position and deserves consideration for an open sales engineer position based on his skill set, tenure, and contributions to the company. However, Steve does not believe he is being given fair consideration for the position — a situation which Steve admits is affecting his attitude as of late. Finally, if the position is filled from the outside Steve would consider this the last straw and begin looking for a job outside the company.

From the perspective of Steve's boss, he is aware of Steve's aspirations but would never move him into such a position because while Steve has great technical skills and could contribute to the sales process that is often very technical in nature, Steve also has the tendency to clown around and act like a “goof” even in front of people he has met for the first time. From Steve's boss' perspective, this issue makes Steve's sales engineering aspirations a non-starter. His boss also has noticed the deterioration in Steve's attitude as of late which is another reason not to consider utilizing Steve in a sales engineering role and instead keeping him in his current role where his exposure to customers is post sale and limited to phone and e-mail contact.

The HR director is also familiar with this situation and with the perspectives of both Steve and his boss. Additionally, the HR manager has become aware of an instance where Steve had been invited on a customer visit to address some technical issues and allegedly used his “informal office personality” in front of the customer. Word of this filtered back to Steve's boss who mentally erased any consideration for Steve's sales engineer aspirations. From the perspective of the HR manager, Steve has some considerable talents, has contributed significantly to the success of the company and possesses potential as a sales engineer. She faults Steve's boss for not having coached Steve prior to his customer visit and she believes that with the appropriate approach to coaching Steve's boss could help Steve overcome tendencies which would be problematic to the customer facing role of sales engineering.

How many times does this type of scenario play out in organizations? Most motivated employees can manage and improve an area of weakness, but only if they are addressed with the issue and are appropriately coached. In our case study example, the opportunity existed to coach Steve — to improve his customer facing demeanor and to allow him to grow within the organization. But that opportunity was missed because Steve's boss did not address the issue with Steve.

How should this situation and others like it be handled? Most importantly, HR needs to take an active role in ensuring that managers are regularly engaging with their employees in performance discussions and not relying solely on formal performance review processes. Furthermore, HR needs to ensure that managers have the know-how and skills to confidently and effectively engage in these discussions with positive outcomes (see “Tips for effective performance discussions” below). In the case of Steve, a technical support engineer aspiring to a greater customer facing role but lacking the professional presence and polish required for such a role, HR needs to take the lead in getting Steve's manager to address the performance issue with Steve, to provide Steve with coaching, and to provide Steve with the opportunity to develop within the organization.

In today's world HR managers are called upon to do more than just administer hiring, benefits and compensation. Their roles have expanded to organizational development planning and execution to improve the performance of the organization's human resources. Encouraging and enabling effective and on-going performance discussions and coaching between managers and employees is a cornerstone to any performance management initiative.

Tips for effective performance discussions

1. Identify the most important issue — Identify the “one big thing” the employee needs to work on. People can only work on one or two issues at a time, so even if there are several areas for development select the highest payoff issue. Ask yourself, “if the employee improved upon this aspect of performance would it increase overall effectiveness?” If the answer is a resounding yes, then you have uncovered the “one thing”. If the answer is “no”, or “well, maybe”, then keep looking. In Steve’s case, the biggest problem with his performance is his reputation of acting like a “goof.”

2. Craft the message — Create a statement describing what you want the employee to develop by describing the opposite of the area for performance improvement. In Steve’s case the message might sound something like this, “Given that you’re interested in a sales engineering role there’s one aspect of your performance that you’ll need some coaching on. In a customer facing role, particularly during the pre-sales period, it’s key to project a down to business formal persona. Would you be open to some coaching in this area?”

3. Manage the discussion — There is a better chance that the employee will be open to hearing what you have to say when the discussion is approached in a helpful “here’s what I’d like to see you develop” manner as opposed to a “here is the problem with you and all of the examples that prove the problem”. Demonstrate your support on the developmental areas while making it clear that the employee is ultimately responsible for reaching performance objectives. Conclude performance discussions by assessing and confirming the employee's willingness to take responsibility for the area of development.

4. Next steps — Once (and only once) the employee has acknowledged the area of development and a willingness to act, discuss solutions and co-create SMART goals designed to help the employee achieve the new performance objectives. Work closely with the employee to reinforce progress and provide additional feedback. For example, in Steve’s case, coaching would seem to be in order followed by some supervised low risk customer visits to try out his new skills, giving him the opportunity to show case his readiness for the sales engineering role.

Jamie Resker is the founder and president of Employee Performance Solutions, a human resource consulting firm that specializes in workplace behavior and employee performance enhancement.

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