Employee Performance Plans that Actually Work

Employee Performance Plans That Actually Work

Employee Performance Plans that Actually Work

I don’t know a single leader who enjoys dealing with employee performance issues. Few things are more frustrating in a business setting than an employee who is either not performing or who has behavioral issues. It is an area where experience doesn’t really make it easier.

Yet, every leader, at some point or another, has an employee they have to coach and discipline.

Progressive disciplinary policies are common among organizations of all sizes. Most employee performance issues do not warrant immediate termination so policies are put in place to give employees an opportunity to improve. These policies vary but they usually have multiple steps that could include verbal warnings, performance improvement plans, written warnings, suspension, and eventual termination.

Out of all steps I believe the performance improvement plan may be the most crucial. If done well, and early, a performance improvement plan can map out the exact performance or behavior that the employer is not happy with, outline the behavior that is expected and give the employee a clear path to improvement. Unfortunately many performance improvement plans fall short of being worth the paper they are written on.

Here are our guidelines for performance improvement plans that we think actually help improve performance.

The biggest mistake leaders make when trying to improve performance is waiting too long. The longer poor performance or bad behavior goes on, the harder it is to fix. By the time the employee is told about the issue, the leader is so frustrated they have no patience left to try to help the employee overcome. All employee issues should be dealt with as soon as they creep up. For this reason we recommend employees receive verbal coaching as often as the opportunity allows. In weekly one on ones or regular performance meetings, employees should be cautioned about any issue that may create problems down the road if they continue.

Then, after that same issue has been coached on multiple occasions, it’s time to get serious. If regular performance discussions are happening, the time between first coaching and performance plan should be relatively short.

Complete Plan:
The second biggest mistake that leaders make when delivering performance improvement plans is only delivering half the plan – the employee portion. Leaders sit an employee down, tell them what they are doing wrong, tell them to fix it and ask them to sign the form. This leaves the employee feeling as though they are on their own and probably have one foot out the door so why bother even trying.

A complete performance improvement plan follows this outline:

Description, with recent examples, of undesired behavior.
Description of desired behavior.
Why desired behavior is important to the business.
How leader is going to help employee improve.
Milestones to improvement.
Next steps and check in dates.
Consequences for not improving.
Employee opportunity to comment.

The piece in italics is the most crucial. Hopefully all leaders want employees to improve. If so, they should be willing to do their part to help employees turn the issue around. Including this in the documentation provides accountability for the leader to ensure they are offering support and assistance as needed.

The Discussion:
Discussing performance issues with employees really is an art form. I’m not convinced there is only one right way to do it. I think it depends on the employee/leader relationship, the communication style of both and the egregiousness of the issue to be discussed. Here’s what I do think should be consistent regardless of style – preparation. Nothing is worse for an employee than feeling like they have just been the victim of a drive by where their leader vomited a bunch of bad news on them and then left.

Leaders should take time to think about the personality of the employee and how they will best receive the information. They should think about framing their words in a way that the employee will be able to hear and understand what is being communicated while, and this is key, being motivated to fix it. The discussion should take as long as is needed for the employee to walk out of the room focused on the issue at hand and understanding what they need to do to fix it.

Dealing with performance issues is a necessary task for most leaders. They are best dealt with swiftly and directly before they grow into something larger than they ever needed to be. Done correctly, they can often steer employees onto a better path, and if they don’t, at least the leader can say they tried to help and the onus for failure lies with the employee.

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Small Thinking that Holds Small Businesses Back

Our motto at Acacia HR Solutions is that small businesses can do anything big businesses can do – they only have to know how to scale. Often, when I say that to people I get a nod in agreement. I’ve learned however, that nodding in agreement and believing are two very different things.

I spoke to a group of HR practitioners at the California HR conference last week. I had an inordinate amount of small business HR leaders in the room. I consider small business to be 250 employees or less. Most of these practitioners were HR Departments of One or leaders with only an admin or one other support person not solely dedicated to HR. One of the slides in the presentation talks about technology and how lack of technology for small business is no longer a valid excuse for not functioning like a business partner. While the small business market is still an under served market in the HR tech space, it’s so much better than it was even 10 years ago. With freemium and monthly subscription options, there is tech out there that even the smallest of budgets can afford.

Whenever I say this in this presentation, the questions immediately come back asking me for a list of resources. I push back and ask why they haven’t researched any of this themselves and the answer often remains the same.

We assumed there wasn’t anything out there we could afford.

This, and two other beliefs held by small businesses, hold leaders back from being able to serve the business in the way they should. The idea that small businesses can’t do the same things as big businesses is rubbish. They may not be able to do it as fast or at the same level, but that’s not the same as not doing it. Further, small businesses often don’t need to do things at the same level as big business because doing so would be overkill. A performance management system with 18 steps and triggers using artificial intelligence is just not necessary in a 72 person firm.

Small businesses get stuck because they believe there is nothing they can do until they get bigger. Until they have a larger budget. Until they have more resources. Let’s explore three beliefs based on this idea that hold small businesses back, starting with the one I already mentioned.

Lack of Budget Means No Technology/Resources
As mentioned, HR tech available to small businesses is growing. There are companies in nearly every category; payroll, ATS, HCM, documentation and more that either cater solely to small businesses or are lowering their minimum employee numbers allowing small businesses to buy at a much earlier stage. I will be doing an entire series or ebook (yet to be determined) on HR Tech for small businesses to be released around the time of the HR Technology conference (join our mailing list below to receive those posts before they go public).

The same is true for resources. I will often have HR leaders from a 150 employee business reach out and say, “we probably can’t afford your help, but I wanted to ask anyway” only find out that they can in fact, afford our services. Depending on need, and the fact that we work solely in this space, we can usually work within the budget available. There are resources like us available for small businesses that are affordable.

Because We Are Small, We Don’t Need X
In speaking to a potential client recently, I went over how our services provides small businesses a complete HR team. That is, working with us is like having a Chief Human Resources Officer, generalist and recruiter on your team. The CFO responded with, “but I don’t think we need all that.” When I explained how it works, he realized he did need all that and actually could afford it.

This way of thinking is the easiest to fall into. I do it myself with my own business. We’re small so I don’t need an ATS, I can just use spreadsheets. We’re small so we don’t need admin support, our (insert random employee here) can handle it.

The reality is being small doesn’t mean you don’t need certain infrastructure and support systems in place. And being small is definitely not a reason to delay building or growing the people side of the business.

Size is a Disadvantage Instead of an Advantage
I hear this one most when discussing recruiting challenges. “We are small so we can’t pay the most and our benefits aren’t that great so we have a hard time hiring.” If you think that your size is a disadvantage, it’s going to be. There are many candidates who want to work in a small business environment. Many who thrive on the chaos of a startup. If leaders focus on the advantages that small businesses offer instead of the negative, their recruiting and retention programs would change forever.

Again I’ll say and forever I’ll stand by the idea that small businesses, can in fact, do anything big businesses can do. I do have to preach to the choir a bit because I catch myself thinking some of these things myself. But I know when I think about what I can do with the budget and resources I have and that are available to me, I can make it happen.

And so can your business.


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Leading Employees with a High Need for Drama

Leading Employees with a High Need for DramaAs a mother, I can tell you that within a short time after birth you get a sense of whether your child will be a high drama child or more relaxed. As the mother of a kindergartner I can tell you that by the time all children turn five they are fully entrenched in their need, or lack thereof, for drama.

Luckily I have a low drama kid.

What’s unfortunate about that need for drama is that rather than leave it behind during our school age years, it simply ingrains itself into who we are and we carry that into the workplace.

And some of us have a very high need for drama.

I bet you are already thinking of someone before I even describe them. That individual who has some traumatic event happen at least once a week. That person who turns every molehill into a mountain. That individual who seems to thrive off of things being a little bit cray cray at all times.

Do people still say cray cray?

Psychologist Scott Frankowski worked with one of these individuals years ago and thought that there had to be some underlying trait that made these people, as he put it, “sincerely believe that their lives are laden with gigantic problems, no matter how small the problems actually are”. So he created a scale to measure a person’s need for drama. You can see where you fall on the test here. I’ll wait.

If you’re wondering my need for drama is extremely low. I really can’t stand unnecessary drama.

I kind of love this scale and wonder if it doesn’t have its place as a pre-employment assessment. I mean, as a leader, I’m thinking it would be helpful to know whether that person you are about to hire is the biggest drama queen to ever walk this earth.

But until they find a way to validate it and prove it’s worth, we’ll just have to be surprised.

So what do we do when we find out we are dealing with the overly dramatic. How do we lead an employees whose life is moving from one crisis to the next? How do we help others, especially with a low drama scale, work with those who are always on the edge of disaster?

Realize You Aren’t Likely to Change Them
The more scientist study those with a high need for drama, the more they realize that it is a deeply embedded trait and one not likely to be changed without professional help. As a leader, we are highly unlikely to be able to offer the type of help they need to make that change. What’s more we aren’t qualified nor have the time, so changing them should not be a goal.

Don’t Feed the Drama:
We can’t change their need for drama, but we don’t have to feed it. I have a few highly dramatic family members. We all do right? I’ve recently had to instruct others who deal with these family members to not feed into the drama. We can call these family members, do our duty as a family member to check in, but the minute the conversation gets to a dramatic level, we can move on. If everyone is feeding into it, it will consume everyone’s time.

That may mean that it’s better to limit the personal conversations or extra interactions with this person. That isn’t to say ignore them, but don’t ask questions that you know are going to lead to dramatic stories that have no relevance to the work at hand. This is good advice to give co-workers as well if they find themselves taking unwanted rides on the drama express.

Focus on the Good:
There are likely many things this person does well. As a leader we have to separate situations and actions from the person. We need to be able to exploit the good and minimize the bad. It is a key characteristic of any successful leader. This focus will be increasingly important when dealing with an overly dramatic individual.

Drama queens (which isn’t a title reserved for the ladies by the way) may be some of the hardest individuals to lead because no amount of feedback or help are going to change the core of who they are. Their ability, and need really, to turn every situation into a day time soap opera can be very trying for everyone around them. Yet, they have valuable traits that they bring to the workplace and have a place on any team.

Have you led a drama queen? How did you learn to work with that person? What are some things you did to make it better?

Photo Credit

Perspective Changes Everything


A few years ago in my road warrior days I enjoyed many long days of travel. Delays, nasty airport workers, frustrated flight attendants and staying overnight in cities more often than I wanted were all part of the package. On one particularly long travel day filled with all of the above and then some, I finally settled into a flight and closed my eyes just as the plane was heading down the runway. Then it happened. The one thing most travelers dread on any flight. A baby started crying. Loud. Insanely. Screeching is probably a better word. I wanted to poke my eyes out so I would have something to stuff in my ears.

I didn’t express my frustration verbally, but I clearly didn’t hide it on my face. I’m sure I sighed aggressively, rolled my eyes and crossed my arms as if this child was torturing me. It certainly felt like she was. Then in a very gentle voice, the woman next to me changed my perspective about crying kids forever. Word for word, because I will never forget them, she said.

“I know that what most people hear is a crying baby and to many on this flight that is very annoying. To me however, that is a healthy child and I will never be annoyed by a healthy child. You see, I’ve had five miscarriages and one still birth. I have wanted and waited to hear baby cries like that for years. While I bet that mother is frustrated and embarrassed, I would take her place in a moment if that could only be my baby.”

She didn’t wait for me to respond. Maybe she knew I didn’t have a response worthy. She sat back, closed her eyes and slept the rest of the flight while the baby cried and cried. She changed my mind. She made me see things from her perspective. From the eyes of someone so desperately trying to have what was driving that mother crazy at the moment.

It is amazing how changing perspective changes everything. Now whenever I hear a crying child on a flight I immediately think of that woman and wonder if she ever got the child she hoped for. I never get annoyed and have often thought about telling her story when I see others getting annoyed.

It is important, I think, to see things through different lenses every once in a while. Our lenses get cloudy, muddied by our life experiences. We see things through the filter of our environment, our morals, our perceptions. Getting someone else’s perspective can make a dynamic impact on how you see the world.

I bet you have a similar story. Has someone’s perspective changed the way you view or react to a particular circumstance? Is there an area in your work or life where getting a different perspective could change the way you feel or work through it? I’d love for you to share your story. You might just change someone’s perspective!

Photo: Harri_1970

Reader Mail – “How Do I Give Negative Feedback?”


I was promoted to a manager position late last year with my company. Unfortunately, my organization does not offer any kind of management training and I have had to learn a lot of stuff on my own. I think I’m doing an ok job, but now I have to give an employee some negative feedback and I have no idea how to do that. Do you have any tips or resources I can use to share negative performance information for the first time?

First I say shame on this company for not offering any kind of leadership training. Second I already answered the reader directly because I didn’t feel she could wait for a blog post. Third, I get asked this question so often I’m going to do an entire webinar around it. Check that out here.

If you have never given performance feedback before it can be tough. Especially if that feedback is negative. No matter how badly they deserve the feedback or how poor the performance is, actually having the discussion can be difficult.

Here are a few steps I suggest in preparing for negative feedback and ones that will be discussed in full on the webinar.

1. Schedule Time – do not give feedback in drive-by fashion. Schedule time to provide the feedback.
2. Focus on situations and behaviors. This is not the opportunity to discuss how annoying their voice is. Focus on situations or behaviors that are creating the problem and not on the person.
3. Prepare and practice. Think about exactly what you are going to say and practice in front of a mirror. Listen to how your words sound and remove any words that could be harsher than they need to.
4. Ask for and be prepared to take feedback. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is realize they could be part of the problem. Ask the individual if there is any feedback they could give you and then BE OPEN TO HEARING IT.

Providing feedback (fortunately or unfortunately) is one of those things that does get easier with practice. Tough conversations that must share negative information do not have to end badly. With the right preparation and consideration of the other person, providing feedback can turn into a very positive experience.

The Lazy Epidemic


A few months back I wrote a series of posts on laziness in the workplace. You can read them here, here and here. Since that time, some version of dealing with laziness has been the most popular search term used to find my blog. We clearly have an epidemic.

My husband and I talk about laziness a lot. Of all the things you could say about us, laziness is not one of them. We have people in our lives who we consider fairly lazy and are always amazed by their lack of motivation. The one thing we have learned is that some people are self motivated while others have to be motivated.

In the workplace, it is typically pretty easy to see who falls into what category. You have employees who do whatever it takes to get the job done. They work hard and need little prompting from leaders. Then you have others who may be very good employees but need constant prompting and direction to get moving. The latter can be very frustrating.

While I’m not convinced there is one distinct method to motivating all employees who lack their own motivation, I do have a few ideas that might help.

Be Clear About Expectations I contend that many problems in the workplace could have been prevented had expectations been properly set from the get go. Be very clear with employees on what you expect, how you expect it and when you expect it and then make sure you are managing to that.

Spend More Time Employees who lack their own motivation may need more of your time. Sometimes just getting more face time with the boss may be the thing they need to get them going. Plan to spend a little extra time with them to see if that changes their perspective.

Understand What Motivates Them One of the easiest exercises I have ever done with teams is to have each of the members describe what motivates them and what shuts them down. This is often eye opening and leaders find out simple things they are doing (or not doing)t are completely shutting employees down and leading to their lack of motivation.

In the end each employee has to be responsible for themselves and if lack of motivation is leading to lack of productivity then leaders have a whole other issue on their hands. Often times though ensuring the above items are covered can go a long way in motivating others.

Photo: JackNesbit

Walking Before You Run


That is my son, B at about 19 months. From the start, B’s mental development advanced far beyond his physical development. He was saying “momma” at 4 months and by 9 months he was saying about nine words. His doctor only expected him to say 3 or 4 and was very surprised at his 9 month checkup when he said things like apple very clearly. Now at 3.5 he talks very clearly and his comprehension and capacity to use words in context is at a high level for his age.

His physical capacity was a different story. At the time of this picture he had only been walking about two months. He didn’t crawl until 13 months and did not push himself to sit up on his own until about 10 months. None of this was a huge deal and certainly hasn’t affected him in the long run, but as a mom with a personality I will talk about in a minute, I was concerned. A little physical therapy and a doctor who would remind me over and over that he had too much going on in his brain to worry about moving right now helped get us to the point that he could chase the rest of the kids on the playground.

Here is why I struggled with this. My personality is one of all or nothing. When I put my mind to something that I really want, I jump all in from the get go. If I decided to be a vegetarian tomorrow, I would immediately go 100% vegetarian. No easing into it. No just making one meal vegetarian for a few weeks then increasing from there. I would go 100% immediately. I have always been that way. If I don’t go 100% immediately it is usually a sign I’m not that committed to it.

What I have had to learn, and what going through B struggling to walk for longer than expected, taught me was that baby steps are ok and often necessary to do something well. They also could be a sign that you are focusing on something else that you are doing really well and just need to ease into this new thing. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Walking before you run can decrease mistakes and the likelihood that you will burnout before ever really accomplishing anything. It also allows you to think things through before making big decisions. I can not tell you how often that has come back to bite me.

So I’m reminding myself today to walk before I run. That it’s ok to take baby steps and not do everything right now. What about you? Do you jump right in or are you someone who likes to take things slowly and let them play out from there?

By the way – he’s the cutest thing ever right?!?

Photo: Ashmill Photography

The Presently Absent Worker


A recent Gallup study finds that 70% of American workers are negative about their job. That is not really surprising, we have been hearing that for a while now. What is surprising is how that 70% breaks down.

According to the article, 20% of workers are completely disengaged and actively looking for work every chance they get. There is nothing that their current company could do to keep them. They are done. The other 50% are what I call presently absent. They come to work and are not necessarily doing much in the way of looking for outside work. Yet they have completely checked out. They are disengaged and dissatisfied. They do enough to get by but little else. They come in, do the basics of the job you ask them to do and they go home.

It is this second group that should alarm leaders.

There is not much to do about the first group. They are looking. They have decided that your company is no longer the place for them and they are doing everything in their power to find something new. In my work over the last two years I can tell you that when people decide to move on, there is little that will keep them at their current company. I can also tell you that if they do end up staying due to a high counter offer or some other promise of enhanced working conditions, it rarely works out.

It’s those that show up but aren’t really productive that are a bigger threat. Over time they move into one of two directions. They either move into the 20% who decide to do something about their unhappiness and move on. Or they stick around and, as my grandmother would say, fester. For whatever reason, they do not look for other work but continue to becoming increasingly miserable where they are. This leads to a completely toxic employee. One who does more damage by being at work then by not. One who makes everyone else around them miserable. They are the ones you actually end up wanting to leave, but don’t.

Eventually, these presently absent workers have to pick a direction. They either have to get back on board and engaged or they have to leave. In order to make that happen, leaders have to be engaged. Presently absent workers who are managed by presently absent leaders could be the downfall of a company. Good feedback wrapped into an entire performance management system comes into play here. The leader and the employee have to be willing to have some honest conversations about what is going on, what is the likelihood of the employee being re-engaged and how are they going to arrive at whatever end result is best, even if that end result is an exit strategy. It takes work and focused effort on both the part of the employee and the company and it is usually a long road.

Have you worked with – or been – a presently absent employee before? What was the outcome? Were they able to be come re-engaged or did they eventually leave?

Photo: Peter Baer

The Benefits of Regular One on One Meetings

Young and good-looking business people are working in the meeting room.

Young and good-looking business people are working in the meeting room.

A few months ago a client of mine who runs a small business with about 10 employees called to see if I had any suggestions for helping her improve communication with her staff.

Can I just stop right here and say how much I love these calls. Leaders who get it and want to be better make my day!

But I digress. I have worked very closely with this business for almost two years now so I know she does a lot of things really well. I knew she had weekly staff meetings where everyone got together and discussed the good, bad and ugly for the week. I knew she had an open door policy and that employees felt comfortable coming to her with problems as evidenced by the fact that our meetings had been interrupted on many occasions by employees. I knew she was very open with her employees about the state of the business and her vision for the future. Still, she explained, it wasn’t enough. There had been a few employee issues that had apparently gone undetected lately and festered right under the surface until they blew up in front of a client. She was shocked, disappointed and of course, embarrassed.

When I suggested having one on one meetings with every person on her staff at least bi-weekly (I push for weekly, settle for bi-weekly) she hesitated. She already has staff meetings and an open door policy. She thought employees felt comfortable coming to her with problems so why did she need to add individual meetings? It’s a fair question. In my experience however, there are a few added benefits that one on one meetings give that may not be achieved other ways.

Focused Attention In a staff meeting, you are focused on the business as a whole. Each department is represented and you go over everything at a high level. In a one on one meeting you can focus in on the particular part of the business that they employee is doing. You can break it down to a cellular level and really focus on what is going on with their work. You can not do this in group setting.

Removes the Peer Pressure Factor As a leader I have had numerous employees come up to me after staff meetings and share their concern about a decision made in the meeting. When I asked them why they didn’t voice their concern then they stated that they didn’t want to go against the crowd. Even as adults, peer pressure still affects us. Having one on one meetings removes that peer pressure and gives an employee the chance to be completely honest without worrying how others will perceive it.

Saves Time in Staff Meetings Because you are having ongoing meetings with employees, you do not have to waste staff meeting time to go over things that do not involve the entire group. Less time in staff meetings makes everyone happy.

Focus on Development Having one on one meetings gives you a place to talk about the employees development and really work on it. If you do not have a lot to go over one week, do not cancel the meeting. Take that time to work on development. It will make your life easier and make them more engaged. Who doesn’t want that?

I’m happy to report that the leader did implement these and is seeing positive results. They do not have to be long, 30 minutes to an hour, but can make a huge impact on the level of communication you have with each and every employee. And if I have to convince you that communication is important…well that’s a whole other conversation.

Photo: conceptkv

What The Way You Reject Candidates Says About Your Employment Brand


One of the top complaints I hear from job seekers surrounds the way employers decide to tell them they are not being considered for the job. Whether it be in a standard rejection email, a mailed letter (yes some still do this) or in no communication at all, job seekers do not understand how they can be dismissed so easily and casually.

Most people might say that employers who give little thought to how they let candidates know they are not being considered do not really care about their employment brand. I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think it’s because they don’t know they have an employment brand or don’t know what impacts it.

Even though employment brand has been a term passed around for years now there still remains a large contingent of HR folks and business leaders who have no idea what it is or that it is even important. In social spaces we talk a lot about candidate experience and tend to roll our eyes at people who do not pay much attention to it, but the reality is in the every day HR world, candidate experience might be the last thing on someone’s mind. As I think about many of my clients who are sole practitioners, I know employment brand is just not something they can wrap their head around right now. They are just trying to do the work.

Still it is important. The cool thing about employment brand is that you can build it over time. It isn’t a project you have to create, plan out and implement all in one week. You can make little improvements, like in the way you reject candidates, that can start to create a more positive employment brand.

I would love to hear from sole practitioners or maybe those who come from smaller organizations. Do you think about your employment brand? Do you realize you have one? Do you know that you need to put practices in place to make it a positive thing and just do not have the time or do you just really not care about it?

This is one of those topics that is very easy for us consultants to go on and on about, but I would love the thoughts of day to day practitioners.

Photo: loop_oh