How should I handle poor performance?

Usually the impetus that moves the ''progressive discipline process from one stage to the next is a repeated violation of the same rule or type of rule (e.g., repeated absenteeism or substandard job performance). In essence, there must be a link or nexus between events in order to move to the next stage. Without an interrelationship between events, you may end up with a series of first-level warnings (sometimes called verbal warnings), rather than a progression from aver alto a written to final written warning.

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Let's assume that a one-year benefits clerk is having difficulty staying on top of her work, following up with customers, and collecting outstanding receivables. The individual was verbally counseled one month ago and instructed to work more efficiently, to keep her boss informed of her progress, to ask for help when she was falling behind, and to minimize any further occurrences of excessive personal telephone calls and extended breaks.

Since that time, the person continued to fail to meet these expectations and received a written warning (see Appendix L for sample written warnings). About five weeks later, the employee improved her conduct by avoiding any further occurrences of extended breaks or personal phone calls; however, a major error occurred with a large account. This became grounds for a final written warning. (See Appendix L for a sample final written warning.)

Any subsequent performance or conduct violations within a reasonable period of time from this point would probably result in a termination for cause.

How can I encourage an underperforming and unhappy employee to leave the company when we haven't begun the progressive disciplinary process yet?

Even in a tight labor market, it becomes necessary from time to time to convince employees to leave your company. Why? Because employees who are experiencing performance and conduct problems will often stay ''on principle''—in other words, they'll rationalize that they'll stay till they're good and ready to leave. ''No one's forcing me out of my job until I'm ready to go—especially not that boss of mine!'' goes the logic of the disenfranchised and victimized worker.

Unfortunately, the results can be very problematic. It can mean workers' compensation stress claims or wrongful termination lawsuits for your company. Employees may go through months or years of feeling unappreciated and having their egos and self-esteem dragged through the mud. So your best solution may be to broker a peace where one party can walk out of the working relationship with his dignity and respect intact.

Meetings such as this require a third-party facilitator. First, if immediate supervisors who are part of the problematic interpersonal relationship with the disenfranchised employee attempt to ''talk the employee into'' leaving the job, their efforts may be perceived as insincere or self-serving at best. Second, whatever is shared with the employee in meetings like this may take on a different meaning two years down the road when the company is being sued for ''constructive discharge.''

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A constructive discharge claim is similar to wrongful discharge; however, in the constructive discharge case, the employee leaves and is not terminated by the company. Still, a plaintiff attorney will argue that the conditions were so egregious at work that any reasonable person would have left under similar circumstances. Consequently, the plaintiff attorney will argue, ''My client was forced into leaving her position, and the company had no right to create such an unfriendly environment. I mean, come on, your Honor, her supervisor told her that she wasn't wanted there anymore and had no future with the company! Telling her that after a year of isolating her from the rest of the team, denying her a raise, withholding training, and holding her to a higher standard than everyone else was just too much. She had to quit, but it s their fault.

To avoid creating a record that could be construed as a manager giving an employee no choice but to resign, the immediate supervisor can t be the deliverer of this message. Instead, a neutral third party must be used. Human resources or a member of your company s senior management team is the typical mediator in such cases.

We all know that, when it comes to job performance problems, both sides are often in total disagreement about the situation: Managers argue that the problematic employee is disrespectful and non-communicative and does not hold herself accountable for her own actions. The disenfranchised employee will argue that her boss holds her to a higher standard than everyone else, that she s never in the communication loop, and that she s never told when she does something right—only when she does something wrong.

Who s right and who s wrong in these situations? Unfortunately, both sides are at fault. In essence, if the working relationship has deteriorated to this point, both the manager and worker have failed. Sometimes, however, trying to fix these problems just becomes an ongoing battle of wills where little good results.

When the problem stems from something more basic than workplace performance issues—when the two people just can t seem to get along because of personal style differences or genuine dislike—transferring the employee may make sense. Even then, other jobs may not be available or the employee may have such a poor reputation that no other manager would hire that individual.

It s then time for the facilitator/broker (again, senior management or human resources) to attempt to gently inject respect, dignity, and professionalism back into the relationship by allowing an ''easy out exit strategy. First acknowledge the efforts to make things work out and that it hasn't been a love match. Ask the employee whether she is frustrated and agrees the situation isn't ideal. At this point, try to put the events in perspective:

There's enough work around here to tire the most energetic of people. When you add the interpersonal friction that you've both been experiencing for the past year or so, it becomes very difficult. I don't want to minimize the importance of your working relationship together, but if you think about it, it's only work. I mean, when you think about families who lose their health or parents who have to see their children through serious illnesses—that's important in life. If we're not suffering from that kind of illness, we're lucky. So let's keep that in perspective as we look at this workplace issue, okay?

Sometimes it's fair to say that there just isn't aright fit. What's important to me is that both parties feel like they're being treated with dignity and respect. I don't want people feeling like their egos and self-esteem are being trashed. Life is simply too short for that.

Mary, I need to share with you that Sue isn't going anywhere. She's a vice president, she's under contract for several more years, and senior management believes she's doing an excellent job. That's an important point for you to keep in mind. I also don't believe that you're happy here. You seem to be disappointed in the management team. You appear not to enjoy your work. And I suspect that you feel like you're not appreciated or part of the team, at least at certain times.

You can offer her an exit. Here are a few questions you might ask:

- Would exploring other opportunities outside the company make sense for you at this point in your career?

- Would leaving now of your own accord allow you an honorable exit strategy?

- Would you like us to give you time to begin interviewing at other companies?

Make sure she knows you would be happy to help her as long as she makes sure that work comes first and that you're given at least twenty-four hours notice of an upcoming interview. That way, the employee needn't feign illness or conjure up doctors' and dentists' appointments if she has an interview coming up. It's important to stress that the decision is entirely up to the employee:

If you'd like our support to either resign on your own terms now or to begin looking for other work, then we'll help you. If not, that's okay, too. We'll do everything we can to help you reinvent your working relationship with Sue, to be given objective performance standards, and to become more effective at your job. I just want you and Sue to feel better about working with each other if you choose to stay. I also want to give you these additional options, Mary, because it's better that we discuss these things openly than leave them unsaid. What are your thoughts?''

This velvet glove approach is typically somewhat challenging to deliver, but it lowers the tension in the relationship immediately. It's always better to tell people where they stand than to make them ''divine'' from their managers' actions that they're not wanted. When people are treated professionally and respectfully, they'll typically respond in kind.

Are there downsides to this intervention technique? Not really, as long as:

- You're careful to ensure that the employee understands that this is her decision (thereby avoiding a constructive discharge claim later down the road)

- You advise her of the objective performance standards she'll be responsible for meeting if she chooses to stay

- You carefully document the meeting, including the employee s response

Just remember that it's your meeting—not theirs. Tell them that anything s open for discussion as long as it s said with the other party s best interests in mind and in a spirit of constructive criticism. There s no attacking and no need for defending, and the meeting will be stopped if you sense that either party is breaching that rule. You ll get to the truly human concerns at issue and allow your employees to take back control of their careers. In fact, for some troubled employees, you may be giving them a chance to take back control of their lives.

How often does this approach work? It depends. In my experience, it's an 80-20 game:20percent of the time employees choose to resign on the spot or at least tell you that they'll agree to begin looking immediately for other work. That may not seem like a great track record, but if you look longer range, you'll find that many employees leave the company within three or four months after a meeting like this.

After all, no matter how angry employees are at the company, they'll come to realize that fighting an uphill battle makes no sense. When angry people are treated respectfully, their anger dissipates. And when the anger is gone, they feel less inclined to stay with your company ''on principle.'' More important, they'll leave quietly, on their own terms without all the histrionics and threats of lawsuits.

How do I maximize exit interviews?

You're not required to conduct exit interviews, but polling your departing employees can reveal very useful information regarding their reasons for leaving your company and pursuing opportunities elsewhere. How do you make exit interviews confidential and effective? Most departing workers won't look to bash their boss on their way out the door. Even if they were dissatisfied, there is always a sense that the information they provide will somehow be placed in their personnel file and come back to haunt them should they ever look to be rehired by your company. There is also a fear that bashing one's boss could lead to negative references with prospective employers.

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First of all, you've got to decide who will conduct the exit interview. A member of your organization's human resources team or a senior member of departmental management is the best choice. Immediate supervisors aren't recommended for this task because their presence may bias employees' feedback.

Second, you've got to determine whether your exit interviews will be done in writing or via a personal conversation. Ideally, you should do both: Exiting employees coming to drop off their company IDs and to pick up their final checks should be required to fill out an exit interview questionnaire first. Then they can verbally share their experiences with the company during the face-to-face meeting after the written questionnaire is completed.

If you develop a written questionnaire, be sure to construct it so that the information can be fed into the computer and tracked for trends and patterns. Some of the questions you might include in the questionnaire fall under the following five categories (which can be mirrored for staff, as well as for management employees): (1) nature of the work and job responsibilities, (2) relationship with the supervisor, (3) employee compensation and benefits, (4) career progression opportunities, and (5) reason for leaving. A sample questionnaire covering all five categories can be found in Appendix M.

A brief look at a resigning employee s responses before the face-to-face meeting should provide some insightful feedback regarding that individual's experiences. The true value in the exit interview data lies, however, in the pooled information developed over time and across departments. For example, you can look to exit interviews to substantiate your suspicion that a particular supervisor lacks the leadership abilities to motivate and retain staff. Such objective evidence may help you sell the benefits of management training to particular supervisors or even substantiate employee complaints against them in the form of progressive discipline.

One caveat here: Exit interviews work well with employees who are laid off or who resign of their own accord. They re less useful when given to employees who are being terminated for cause because such employees often lack the objectivity to assess the working situation fairly.

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