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How Do I Make Sure That I’m On Solid Ground Before Beginning The Discussion About Poor Performance?

The most important step is to clearly identify the difference between the desired performance and the employee’s actual performance. Several other pieces of preparation help ensure that you are successful in your meeting with the individual:

  1. Identify the impact.
  2. Determine the consequences.
  3. Check for defensibility.

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1. Identify the impact. What are the good business reasons that demand that the problem be solved? What difference does it make if the employee comes to work a few minutes late, or smokes outside the building but not in an official smoking area, or doesn’t act as a team player? So what if Margie spends a few minutes reading a magazine?

In the course of a discussion about a need for performance improvement, it’s common for the employee to respond to the manager’s request for change by arguing that what he is doing is no big deal and that the manager is making mountains out of molehills. The manager’s usual response to these objections is to fall back on a power and authority position: I am the boss; it is a rule. But power and authority don’t help much in bringing about a genuine agreement to change. A better approach is to think through the impact—the good business reasons why the organization or the manager has the performance expectation under discussion. If the manager has written down a list of all the reasons why the rule or expectation is important, it will be easy for her to say, ‘‘Yes, Margie, I know that it does sound like a minor item. But actually, it’s quite important. Let me go over the good business reasons why we have this expectation of our staff.’’

2. Determine the consequences. In spite of knowing that what he’s doing creates a problem for the organization, and in spite of knowing why it’s a problem, the employee may still decide to continue to smoke in inappropriate locations, or do personal business on company time, or not act as a team player. What are the logical consequences of that decision?

The one that immediately springs to most managers’ minds is: further disciplinary action, up to and including discharge. And although that may be true, the threat of disciplinary action and discharge is not usually the most effective action available to the manager. There are often far more powerful adverse consequences available to the manager when employees decide not to do what they’re being paid to do.

For example, the manager could:

  • Restrict smoking breaks altogether.
  • Impose closer supervision.
  • Refuse to allow participation on the annual event planning committee.
  • Deny a request to attend an out-of-town conference.

It may well be that these consequences have far more power in convincing someone to straighten up and solve a problem than if the manager merely tells the employee, ‘‘I’m going to write you up.’’

Hot Tip

Is reviewing the logical consequences of failing to solve the problem the same as threatening to punish the employee if she doesn’t change behavior? Not quite. All of the choices people make in life, including their on-the-job choices, have consequences. All the manager is doing is advising the individual of what the natural consequences will be if the individual decides not to do what she is getting paid to do. Some of the logical consequences of continued poor performance have nothing to do with a manager’s inflicting punishment. For example, loss of coworkers’ respect is a natural consequence of goofing off. But there’s no thought of punishment here.

3. Check for defensibility. Any disciplinary action or discharge can be challenged. To make sure that the action you’re planning to take will survive a legal challenge, ask and answer these five questions:

  1. Did the employee clearly understand the rule or policy that was violated?
  2. Did the employee know in advance that such conduct would be subject to disciplinary action?
  3. Was the rule violated reasonably related to the safe, efficient, and orderly operation of the business?
  4. Is there substantial evidence that the employee actually did violate the rule?
  5. Is the action planned reasonably related to the seriousness of the offense, the employee’s record with the organization, and action taken with other employees who have committed a similar offense?

If the answer to any of the questions is ‘‘No’’ or ‘‘I’m not sure,’’ you’re not ready for a formal disciplinary transaction.