Culture Clash

You're probably familiar with employees who exhibit below-standard performance. Maybe yours is the massage therapist who is consistently late or the front-desk attendant who gets along well with coworkers but sometimes takes a surly tone with customers. You may not be ready to fire them, but if you don't do something, their performance issues are likely to escalate until they become full-blown "problem employees."

In a recent survey involving 115 human resource professionals and 441 line managers, OnPoint Consulting, an organizational and leadership consulting firm, found that only half of the respondents believe that their current ratings systems facilitate the delivery of feedback during performance reviews. It is not unusual for a manager to check the "meets expectations" box year after year, even if an employee isn't meeting them. When the paper trail shows that, by all indications, the employee doesn't have a problem, it's very hard to suddenly confront someone for behaviors that he or she has exhibited and —more to the point—gotten away with for a long time.

This is a problem faced by many leaders. They are hesitant to deal with performance issues, so they send indirect messages and subtle signals or simply avoid the situation, hoping it will go away. As a result, the people who are doing the full job—and whose behavior is consistent with company values—become more and more resentful of coworkers who appear to be getting away with bad behavior or not doing their fair share of the work.

Ultimately, the leader's reticence to deal with employees who are performing poorly leads to another problem. When it comes to the point where the person's performance or behavior can no longer be tolerated, and the poor performer is told he or she must improve, it often comes as a shock because this is the first he or she is hearing that there is a problem. To keep this situation from getting out of hand, consider the following tips for heading off performance issues:

1. Paint a clear picture of what good performance looks like. In order to be able to pinpoint poor performance, you need to get very clear about what good performance looks like and translate that into specific behaviors and outcomes. Then you have to share those behaviors and outcomes with employees.

2. Communicate your expectations and make sure employees understand and agree to them. You must make sure your employees know what is expected of them. It's not fair to hit them with corrective feedback or a bad review if you haven't made your expectations crystal clear.

3. Don't let expertise or revenue production be a get-out-of-trouble-free card for the employee (or a get-out-of-confrontation-free card for you). The biggest challenge for leaders is to take corrective action with an employee who is a top producer but whose behavior is not consistent with company values. If the espoused values are to have any real meaning, then how something gets done must be considered just as important as what gets done.

4. Raise performance concerns while they're fresh. There's no doubt that most people hate confrontation. It can be awkward and difficult, but it must be done—it's the only way to prevent performance issues from creating a problem employee. When goals and expectations for behavior have been clearly described and agreed to, these conversations can be easier. It doesn't have to get ugly if you focus the discussion on the agreed upon behaviors and performance targets.

5. Provide ongoing coaching and feedback, both scheduled and on the spot. Behavior change is much more successful when efforts are regularly reinforced. That means giving individual feedback (both positive and constructive) to employees about their progress on goals not just once a year at their annual performance review but also periodically and consistently through scheduled meetings and on-the-spot chats.

6. Celebrate small victories. Too often, managers reserve recognition for their top performers or save it up until poor performers get up to standard. While it is clearly important to recognize high performers, it is just as important to recognize all positive behavior, especially when it's a step in the right direction for an employee who has a performance issue.

7. Make sure managers are trained for competence in these skills. So often, manager training is the missing link in a spa's quest to correct performance issues. It's easy to say, "Okay, get out there and make everyone on your team an 'A' player." But if you don't teach them the relevant skills, it's just not a realistic request. It's far less painful to properly train managers than to let problematic employees fester and become full-blown culture poisoners.

Jennifer Forgie is a managing partner at OnPoint Consulting, an organizational and leadership consulting firm. The focus of her work is on helping companies close the gap between strategy and execution. She has consulted with organizations across industries to design and deliver solutions that enhance leadership and organizational effectiveness. For more on OnPoint Consulting, visit Contact Forgie at [email protected].