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Ask the HR Expert: Employee Engagement & Performance Issues

Posted by NEHRA  November 5, 2010 09:00 AM

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Q. We have a supervisor that has not been performing well. She has been spoken with on numerous occasions about her lack of performance and her attitude. We want to demote her from supervisor, but now she is pregnant and we are worried about this demotion appearing as though it is a result of the news of her pregnancy. Are we able to demote this person without any ramifications?

I will qualify my answer by acknowledging there is much I donít know. That said, Iím going to assume that the performance issues have been well documented in writing, and are now part of her personnel file. Iím also going to assume that the documentation occurred before she notified you of her becoming pregnant. If these assumptions are correct, I see no reason why you should accept poor performance simply because she is pregnant. However, given there is much I donít know, and given your are threading in potentially rough waters, I suggest you seek out the opinion of either in house legal counsel (if you have someone on staff), or place a call to a local employment attorney. It will be time and money well spent.


Q. I have a difficult issue for you. My manager has given me the task of training our interpreters. Every time we get started with the training, she derails the process for some detail. Most recently I discovered my manager called a meeting to discuss me and my training with the team, without me there. Other colleagues, as well as myself, believe it is unfair for my manager to interject each time, undermining my training capabilities in front of the trainees. How do I appropriately and constructively ask my manager not to derail the training process?

A. I spend a lot of time training and facilitating myself and know how frustrating it can be when the process is derailed or interrupted. Iím a believer of open and frank discussions, as long as these discussions are delivered in a professional, productive, and non- accusatory manner. I never think it is healthy for an employee to vent to others without given oneís supervisor the courtesy and benefit of a discussion. Recognizing there are always two sides to every story (often, three!), I suspect there is a lot I donít know, and perhaps things you donít know. Often, people perceive more behind an action than what is meant. Nevertheless, it is the effect this is having on you, not necessarily the intent. I thus suggest you ask for a meeting with her. Wait until your emotions are cool and you can discuss this logically and unemotionally. Be positive, upbeat, non critical, and avoid mentioning how other colleagues support you (this will cause her to get defensive). Come prepared with solutions. Write me if this does not workÖ.


Q. I was recently hired at a large company. I am still getting used to the systems, as well as the likes/dislikes of my current managers. I was just let go after only a few months, because my performance was not as they expected. I am a bit upset, as I feel that I was not given any verbal/written warnings prior to being fired. Since I am fairly a new employee and still am on a learning curve, I feel that I was not given a chance with some training and more time on the job to reach my potential. Was this a fair practice or something that not handled properly, from the legal perspective and just in terms of best practices? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.

A. Sounds like you were another victim of the ineffective manager syndrome. An HR Director of a Boston-based technology company tells this story, ďI had a manager ask how he could move an underperforming employee out of the company. When I asked when he had a conversation with this employee about the issue he sheepishly admitted he hadnít brought it upĒ. She then asked, ďSo youíd rather fire this person than try to have a conversation about changing the behavior?Ē The managers reply, ďYes, Iíd rather just get rid of the person.Ē

Did your manager withhold key information? It is likely your manager knew of the gap between your performance and expectations but lacked the skills (or the backbone) to have an early enough conversation. Due to the inability of most managers to effectively communicate with team members many wait until a performance issue has turned into a persistent pattern and are ready to fire the employee or assume the person isnít capable of meeting expectations.

We canít always count on having a good manager. Managers should initiate these conversations but often withhold critical information. Instead of relying on a manager provide us with the feedback we need we should shop for it.

Hereís how to proactively seek out feedback:

First, identify your trusted advisors. You probably have a handful of people you trust and value the opinion of. For instance, your manager, co-worker, internal or external customer can be your sounding board.

Ask two key questions:

1. "Tell me one thing I'm doing well and should continue with."
2. "Tell me one thing that I could do that will help me be more effective."

If youíre new, youíll want to ask these questions more frequently to gauge how youíre doing. Question one helps us identify what we have mastered and should continue doing more of. Question two gives the feedback provider permission to share what they otherwise might not feel comfortable saying.

Notice I didn't ask, "Tell me about my greatest weakness". Why? Quite frankly I don't want to hear about my deficiencies. I want to know what I can be doing for future. Phrasing the question to be future focused makes it more comfortable for the feedback provider to be honest about what he/she really wants from you.

We should never fully rely on the managerís ability to provide actionable feedback or an organizationís performance evaluation process. Performance reviews are by their very nature a look back into the past and often leave out hard to discuss yet important information. By taking the initiative to ask for feedback, we can get the information we need to recalibrate our performance as needed and avoid surprises such as unexpected termination or disciplinary action.

What happened to you is unfair and shows poor management skills but in terms of the legal perspective, Massachusetts is an at will employment state. Employers can fire any employee at any time and for any, no or even unfair reason. Likewise employees have the right to resign under the same circumstances.


Q. What mentoring resources exist in the HR community for HR professionals looking to develop from a specialist role to a manager role?

A. Moving from specialist to that of HR Manager requires ďgeneralistĒ skills. This implies experience in 5 major areas:

Employee Relations
Training and Organizational Development

I would highlight the areas you are strongest in and then pick one area at a time where you want to increase your knowledge and experience. The best type of professional development comes from learning and then immediately applying the new skills. For example, one of the specialty areas I was weak in was Training and Development. I found a course through Achieve Global to develop facilitation skills. Once I became certified as a facilitator I began to teach the Achieve Global management training modules within my organization.

Try to find an advocate to help you match up your developmental interests with opportunities to practice them on the job. Hopefully this will be your boss as he/she can help facilitate this process. One other piece of advice is to network, network and then network some more. How and where? First, find groups on LinkedIn and join the ones that are most relevant. There are also professional groups (varying in cost) that you can join where you can find like-minded colleagues.

Here are just some examples (click on the link below to view):
HR Areas.pdf

A last bit of advice is to become active in at least one group. Most groups offer volunteer opportunities. Participating on a committee or in a special interest group can help you network and feel more connected than just showing up at events. Youíre smart to take an inventory of the skills you donít have and put into place a plan to acquire them. Just pick what interests you most and work on one area at a time.


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About NEHRA - The Voice of HR Featuring articles and resources for Human Resources / HR professional and hiring managers from the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA).

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