Performance Management Blog

Avoiding Difficult Performance Discussions is Not Nice

Posted by Jamie Resker on Oct 18, 2010 10:06:00 PM

firing employeesOne of the excuses we commonly hear as a reason for not actively engaging in dialogue with employees regarding their performance is “We’re really nice at XYZ organization” or “We're non-confrontational". Translation, “We have people who are underperforming, but we’d rather not have those conversations.” Or, “It’s just easier to let the underperformance continue as is; I’ll just focus on my A and B level players.” And finally, “What would we say and how would the person on the receiving end react? We’d rather not go there.”

There are many reasons for not having performance conversations. Here are just a few:

  • He’s only got another two years before retirement.
  • She can’t change.
  • That’s the way he’s always been.
  • What if I make things worse?
  • It’s a personality issue and it’s not my job to deal with that type of thing.
  • We can’t afford to lose her.

The most contradictory of all the reasons to not provide feedback:

  • “We’re a gentle, nice type of place to work and we avoid conflict.”

Why is it contradictory?

In our research, managers admit to waiting for a performance problem to get so bad that they allow it to reach a level where the first step is disciplinary action or getting the ball rolling on moving the person out of the organization. So, if the organization was really the nice place it claimed to be, wouldn’t it make more sense to provide early-on and actionable feedback that would help the employee get back on track?

One of the questions we ask at every event or workshop is:

When do people first get information on an area of underperformance?

  1. Early on when the issue has just emerged.
  2. When a persistent pattern has developed.
  3. When the manager is so frustrated they are just ready to fire the employee.

Not surprisingly managers and Human Resources professionals report that it’s when a persistent pattern has developed (meaning it’s time for disciplinary action such as a warning of performance improvement plan) or when the manager is ready to fire the employee. In other words, we’d rather just let the person continue on down the wrong path and then discipline them or get the wheels in motion to fire them.

A Human Resources Director of a Boston based technology company had a manager ask for assistance to move an underperforming employee out of the company. When the HR Director asked the manager when he had a conversation with the employee about the issue he admitted he hadn’t brought it up with the employee. She then point blank asked, “So you’d rather fire this person than try to have a conversation about changing the behavior?” Sadly the manager answered, “Yes, I’d rather just get rid of the person.” Unfortunately this is a common story in many organizations.

Good and kind organizations promote these conversations early on before the issue has reached the point of no return. From the employee’s perspective it’s particularly unfair when the issue is in their blind spot; they have no idea their performance is problematic. Not because the leader who could and should be having a conversation is unaware of the issue. They are aware of the problem but because most people are unsure of how to go about such discussions, they avoid having them in the first place. On the surface this appears to be the “we’re a nice organization who doesn’t engage in conflict.”

From the employee’s vantage point withholding key performance information is anything but nice. How many times have people been written off or worked around due to a performance inhibitor? “You know how Jennifer can be, let’s not have her on the team this time around.” Only for Jennifer to realize she has been left out of various activities and opportunities which can lead to her asking why she wasn’t asked to participate. When employees are left out of important meetings, bypassed for promotional opportunities or interesting work, left behind while team members go to lunch together, or whispered about, they pick up on the undertones. This leads to further disengagement and only exacerbates the problem.

First Step: Warning or Performance Improvement Plans?

Worse still is when the employee hears about the issue for the first time and is put on a warning or performance plan. Even worse than that is when the person is “laid off” or suddenly fired. What could be more unfair, particularly when there is evidence that most people can get back on track when they receive early-on actionable feedback. When managers say the employee is unable to perform we always ask, has the person been given the opportunity to demonstrate his or her true capabilities? If the answer is yes, they have been given feedback and the support to realign their performance then the obvious answer is to get started down the disciplinary path or moving the person out of the organization. When the answer is no, I haven’t really had that kind of conversation, then the conversation about how to be more effective should take place.

Being a kind organization means giving people the opportunity to improve before writing them off, even when it might mean initiating an uncomfortable conversation. The goal should always be to “help the employee out” before “helping them out of the organization.”

Topics: difficult conversations, employee development, underperformance, performance feedback, performance management, avoiding conflict, ignoring performance issues