Mandated Issues Policy violations, harassment and safety violations always need to be addressed, even though they may be single incidents. For example, a company that provides healthcare coaching has a policy prohibiting the sharing of employee names. If an employee shared their name, even inadvertently, he/she would be appropriately written up because the policy violation could jeopardize the safety of the employee and/or colleagues.
Single Incidents An employee misses expectations in terms of a work responsibility or displays an unexpected or disruptive behavior. The appropriate response is to have an informal early intervention conversation to bring awareness to the employee about what happened and what is expected for future. This is considered a casual "cup of coffee " conversation. The idea is to communicate what happened and to provide clarity around future expectations. The assumption is that the employee will want to meet expectations and will shift their future actions. Addressing single incidents represent the best opportunity to get the employee onto the right track.
Merit: consider the merit of the incident. Oftentimes we see an employee make a misstep only to self-correct. For example, if an employee misquotes a price over the phone and says, "I've got to call the client back because I quoted the wrong price," it is appropriate to consider this issue as self-corrected. Don't come down like a ton of bricks on the employee. It's unnecessary.
Apparent Pattern When single incidents are not addressed they commonly evolve into apparent patterns, where the negative behavior or performance is repeated on a regular basis. There could be two reasons for this:
At this point, because the manager has not previously brought awareness to the issue and set future expectations, the tone for the conversation should be casual, as in "let's grab a cup of coffee, I just need to make you aware of what is expected." Most often, addressing single incidents early on heads off the formation of the Apparent Patterns stage. Of course there are exceptions that will become noticeable when:
- The employee is completely unaware of the issue (it is in his/her Blind Spot).
- The employee is aware of his/her actions, but because the issue hasn't been addressed he/she assumes it isn't serious enough to warrant any intervention (the issue is Known but Unspoken).
- The employee doesn't know how (provide support: coaching, training, mentoring, feedback, SMART Goals).
- There is a motivational issue preventing him/her from sustaining the expected performance or behavior.
We see this manifesting itself when the employee is "good" for a few weeks after the initial conversation but then veers off track again. A common example is the employee who exhibits a pattern of being late for work but starts coming in on time after a discussion, only to begin reporting to work 10, 15, 20 minutes late again. This demonstrates that he/she can be on time but for whatever reason (typically motivational in nature) continues with the old undesired pattern.
Persistent Pattern When single incidents and apparent patterns go unaddresse it's likely that they will morph into persistent patterns where the adverse behavior or performance shortcoming become the norm. With the proper approach disruptive employee behaviors can be addressed, but usually prove to be difficult to navigate without clear guidance. Why? Behaviors are subjective. can feel like a personal attack, and the right words seem elusive.
To be fair to the employee, we first want to know if the person responsible (ie: a manager) has had a clear conversation about expected performance and behavior. Or is the employee unaware because the issue goes unspoken and is in their blind-spot? Or does the employee realize his or her effect yet makes no change because a clear conversation never occurs; thereby signaling that the performance is acceptable? If the issue was handled earlier, could the employee righted their performance? Unfortunately, those in a position to do something about it may have failed to act; ultimately failing the employee, the organization and all other stakeholders.
Simply look around your own organization to see employees (including managers and those in leadership positions) who exhibit persistent patterns of unproductive behaviors and performance. These people are known to us, and the implications can be vast. These chronic underperformers and repeat offenders impact colleagues and customers, often making their manager's life miserable.
Oftentimes these are the employees who have all of the skills and talent you want, but whose tone and approach drain your energy, contribute to creating a toxic environment and suck the life out of your high and mid-level performers; sometimes driving them into the arms of your competitors or having them stay onboard while becoming disengaged from their work and divesting from the organization.
At this stage a formal intervention is called for. Typically, the employee (who is now hearing the information for the first time) will react with shock, indignation, anger and resentment. After all, the pattern has been going on for quite some time and was never raised as a problem in the past. Again, to be fair to these "repeat offenders" the person(s) in a position to redirect the performance has failed to do so. Naturally it's a lot more difficult to address a long-standing performance issue than if it had been addressed early on, but it can and should be done.
Disciplinary Intervention At this point the employee's performance has still not improved, so you're feeling ready to help the individual get back onto the job market (that's a diplomatic way of putting it!). The employee may be placed on a performance improvement plan with the intent of specifyng performance expectations, time-frames and consequences for not performing.
In a recent survey of HR professionals, 30% of respondent's reported that the first time an employee learns of his/her performance deficiency is during a disciplinary intervention event. From the eyes of the employee, there is nothing more unfair than being given zero opportunity to self correct early on, only to learn of an issue for the very first time when they are in the process of being fired. This is much more common than we might think.
For example, An HR Director recently told the story of a VP of Sales who asked for help in terminating an employee. When asked if the manager had any prior conversation with the employee about the issue the answer was a sheepish "no". The HRD then asked, "so, let me get this straight, you would just rather fire this person rather than have a conversation with them about expected performance moving forward?" "Yes", the manager said.
From the manager's perspective, they are so sick of dealing with the fall out from the issue that they are ready to fire the person. We then hear things like "HR doesn't let us fire anyone around here!" Well, how about having a conversation with the employee as a starting point.
If your goals are to:
- Ensure that employees are provided with development opportunities
- Retain and engage your good to great employees
- Create and maintain a civilized work place
- Build a reputation of a good place to work
- Maximize the return on your human capital investments
- Minimize legal action taken by employees against the company
Then you must build the skills or your managers to handle performance issues in the early stages. That's where the ability to comfortably provide feedback is invaluable. Even better, train your employees to proactively ask for feedback versus waiting until performance review time.