Managing a poor performer

The current UK General Election has flagged up an issue that concerns many small businesses – how do you manage a poorly performing employee without crossing the line into bullying or pushing the individual into going off sick, often with ill-defined ‘stress’.

It’s come into focus with the case of Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary. It’s been pretty clear to most people, including supporters of her own party, that she has had a disastrous election campaign, appearing not to know her own policies and struggling to answer basic questions. Given the importance of the role of Home Secretary – especially in the light of recent terrorist attacks – questioning her competence to do the job is legitimate.

But much of the criticism in recent days has been of a personal nature, and given that she is the highest profile black woman in UK politics there has been an undercurrent of racism and sexism to some of the criticism. She is, after all, not the only politician who has been exposed as not having a grasp of key policy details during the election campaign. The situation appears to have culminated in her going off sick for the remainder of the campaign.

Politics is not the same as business of course, and the dividing line between personal criticism and political division is blurred. But in the world of work, there’s also a danger that trying to manage poor performance can – deliberately or accidentally – move into the personal – which may lead to organisations facing discrimination or unfair dismissal claims.

So how should a small business manager deal with a similar situation?

Firstly – don’t avoid the situation. I often quote an Employment Judge who in a tribunal hearing, pointed out to the ex-employee that “it is the Employer’s responsibility and duty to make an employee aware if their performance is below the standards required”. Brushing things under the carpet makes it much harder to deal with things later.

Second – focus on the issues, not the individual. What exactly is it that is not being done correctly? Move from the personal “you’re hopeless at customer service” to the task “the wording of your email to this customer is unclear/antagonistic”

Thirdly – make it clear what improvements are expected, and by when, and outline what support you can give the person to achieve the required level of performance.

Fourth – don’t micromanage. Picking up an individual for every tiny error is not going to lead to an improvement, you’ll just end up shattering their confidence completely and ensure that they fail.

Of course, there are times when an individual employee is not up to the job and you may need to dismiss them as a result. But unlike politics, you should do this objectively and not on the basis of personal criticism and destroying their health.

Need to know more about this? You can find out more details here.

Swallows and Amazons

You may have missed it, but the New York Times published an “exposé” of the culture and working practices at online retailer Amazon at the weekend. If you did miss it, then you can find it here. It’s caused quite a furore, with lots of condemnation of Amazon, and company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos having to issue a formal statement in response.

I don’t know anything at all about Amazon’s working conditions and culture. However I can spot emotively manipulative journalism when I see it, and the fact it’s in what is apparently America’s “newspaper of record” doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Let’s leave aside all the “they texted me on Thanksgiving Day” “I saw grown men cry daily*” “I was criticised for having poor wi-fi on holiday” stuff which may be true incidents but are simply anecdotal evidence (*As an aside, presumably women crying at work every day would not be worth reporting since, as we all know, they are over-emotional little creatures). Let’s look instead at the managerial and HR practices that are criticised.

  1. They have leadership values and (shock, horror) actually use them in management and recruitment, rather than leave them as nice words stuck behind a reception desk, where of course they should be.
  2. They encourage feedback from all sections of the workforce on performance. Other companies call this 360 degree appraisal and use it a lot.
  3. They want contributions from all members of staff and expect challenge, regardless of position
  4. They use data to inform their business decisions
  5. They work long hours
  6. They use performance rankings to dismiss staff they deem to be poor performers
  7. Poor performance is managed by performance improvement plans (which according to the article is “Amazon code for ‘you’re in danger of being fired’”. In a similar vein, the Daily Mail once informed its readers that cloud storage was “not an actual cloud”)

Points 1-4 would be considered as good practice by most HR professionals. If anything the NYT article shows that we should be alive to the ways to which even “good practices” can lead to negative consequences. 5 and 6 are both poor practices but aren’t exclusive to Amazon in any way (even if again, Amazon apparently take them to an extreme). While 7 is again a fairly normal managerial practice in most companies – not an Amazon exclusive “secret code”.

Amazon may have very poor working conditions and an aggressive, over competitive management style. So do many other companies. They may have high turnover and many disgruntled ex-employees. So do many other companies. I’m certainly not defending either the company or poor HR. But why single them out? The old journalistic adage is “follow the money”. The New York Times’s major rival as a “newspaper of record” is The Washington Post. Who owns The Washington Post? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

The Problem Is You

Every day, I get bombarded with emails about “happiness”, “wellbeing”, “mindfulness” and “resilience”. Now, no-one, including me, wants people – whether they are employees or not – to be unhappy, in poor health (physical or mental) or unable to cope with things. But, as is often the case in the world of work, too many in HR are spending their time trying to tackle the symptoms, not the causes.

So: you’ve got a manager who’s working 14 hours a day, spending every evening doing emails and is aging visibly before your eyes. It’s ok – just send them on a resilience workshop.

Or an employee on minimum wage who’s worried that they can’t feed the family all week. No problem – a bit of mindfulness meditation will solve that

Or that guy who can’t sleep because they are failing to achieve the ever demanding targets of the company – just stick a Fitbit around their wrist and give them some feedback on their heart-rate. That way they can worry about the fact they aren’t doing their 10000 steps a day as well as everything else. (And of course we can add to our HR metrics too, to optimise their work performance)

The issue is that all of these situations, the problem is passed to the employee. It is their fault they can’t cope. As responsible employers of course, we make sure they’ve got the tools to deal with their failure to cope with the situation; after that they are on their own. Rarely do we acknowledge, let alone tackle, the organisational symptoms that contribute to the problem. Instead, we shrug our shoulders and conclude that, with all the support we’ve given them, if they can’t hack it in our environment they know what to do.

After all, HR has no responsibility for things like pay rates, working conditions, culture, organisational development, performance management or training do we…?

The Clarkson Affair – what small employers really need to know

The suspension of TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear, after what’s been described as a “fracas” with his producer, has caused a huge amount of discussion, media comment and online debate. (If you’re one of my non-UK readers, or have been avoiding the news for the past week, here’s a summary of the story)

In adding to the already large amounts of discussion on this story, I’m aiming to provide a reminder for small organisations of the process for dealing with such a situation – while not all that common it happens more often than you may think.

Firstly, you need be clear to all staff about what behaviour is unacceptable. Most organisations would class fighting or physical assault as gross misconduct, which is likely to lead to dismissal without notice (people sometimes refer to this as “summary” or ” instant” dismissal – however as you have to undertake a proper process before dismissing, I avoid these terms as they imply that you make a knee-jerk decision). Many organisations would also class threatening verbal abuse as gross misconduct, especially if it has (as some versions of the story suggest) a racial element.

Even if you don’t classify it as gross misconduct, it’s unlikely to be acceptable behaviour and might well lead to disciplinary action – and if you have someone  already on a final warning (again, as Mr Clarkson apparently is), further disciplinary action is also likely to result in dismissal.

If you are considering gross misconduct, you should normally suspend the individual while you investigate matters. Someone’s job is at stake so it’s important that you talk to any witnesses or consider any supporting documentation. You may also want to talk to the individual themselves as part of the investigation although this isn’t always necessary. Make sure any meetings are documented. If your organisation is large enough, get someone to carry out the investigation who isn’t connected to the incident or who won’t be involved in the final decision.

At the end of the investigation, if there seem to be grounds for gross misconduct, call a disciplinary hearing and ensure the individual has access to all the allegations before the hearing. Remember, you must allow them to put forward their side of the story or any mitigating circumstances before you make the final decision.

And if you do dismiss, then the individual must be allowed an appeal, usually to someone not involved in the final decision – although in a very small organisation this isn’t always possible, but in this case you should allow the opportunity to request a review of the decision.

Without knowing all the ins and outs of the Clarkson case (we only have partial media reports), it does seem the BBC is doing things “correctly”, even if this upsets those who want to see Clarkson either back on TV or dismissed immediately. And it’s a reminder that no matter how valuable an individual employee is to the company, they aren’t above the normal standards of behaviour.

If your company needs help with handling a disciplinary case, why not get in touch?

(NB – some may point out that Clarkson is not a BBC employee but a freelance contractor. I understand that because of the large numbers of freelance contractors in the media industry, the BBC policy is to cover both employees and contractors. However, you don’t need to follow such a process with any freelance workers you use in your business, only those who are directly employed by you)

Updated 25/3/15

The decision has been made and it seems that not only have the BBC carried out a full and proper investigation of the issues, they’ve also carried out the process in a fortnight, which gives the lie to those who suggest that suspensions and investigations drag out things unnecessarily!

Are our workplaces designed to fail?

I’m a big fan of economist Tim Harford, and recently read his book “The Logic of Life”.  In one chapter he deals with an economic idea which offers an explanation of the reasons both for high executive pay and office politics – Tournament Theory.

The argument – supported by some statistical evidence – runs like this. Modern workplaces reward relative performance, not absolute performance. Good performers are defined, not by specific targets, but by being better than other performers. So work becomes a series of endless tournaments between ostensible colleagues – if one wins, another loses. And with victory comes reward.

Now just like in the current World Cup, victory can be obtained in various ways.  You can go all out to achieve success, putting in lots of discretionary effort – the equivalent of playing free-flowing, attacking football. But there are equally successful strategies that will win you the match without necessarily benefiting your employer. You can be risk averse, blocking anything new and sticking to the tried and trusted, stifling your more innovative opponent – the work equivalent of “parking the bus“. Or you can go out of your way to discredit, disrupt and stab your colleague in the back – the equivalent of trying to kick your opponent off the park. Your tactics are determined by doing not what is best for the organisation but what will work for you –  and just like the group stages of the World Cup will be decided not just by who your current opponent is but also what your other  colleagues are up to.

In this model, the prize for getting to the next level  has to be sufficient to make it worth competing at all. So if you earn £20000 pa, the prospect of a promotion to a salary of £25000 is a big jump. At £70000, an increase to £75000 will have far less effect but an increase to £90000 may well incentivise you. Chief Exec salaries of say £500000 aren’t designed to reward the individual in the role, but to act as an incentive to Directors below them who may be earning a “mere” £300000.

Of course, it’s easy to spot problems with this theory from an HR perspective. For example, it makes no allowance for intrinsic motivation, despite increasing scientific support for this playing a major part in the way individuals behave in the workplace.

But what the theory does do is to explain why many of our HR initiatives fail. If our organisation structure and pay and benefits system is set up to reward relative performance, it will inevitably encourage people to behave in the way that tournament theory predicts. No amount of family friendly policies, team building exercises, empowerment or innovative recruitment strategies will change this if we have designed systems that work against what we are trying to achieve. So while OD and “compensation & benefits” are seen as the less ‘sexy’ end of HR, maybe they are the ones we should be paying more attention to if we really want to change the world of work.