No more Mr (or Ms) nice guy: helping line managers call time on bad behaviour

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Employers don’t have to put up with poor performance or serious misconduct – and neither do colleagues who invariably suffer when bad behaviour is tolerated, writes Joydeep Hor, who explains that HR needs to help line managers call out underperformance and employees behaving badly

How often is an HR professional asked to start the process for dismissing an underperforming or badly behaving employee, only to find that the employee’s personnel record contains nothing but bland praise? Too often, line managers are reluctant to call people out on poor conduct or weak performance when it happens, and when the time comes for an annual performance appraisal, they tick all the boxes indicating satisfactory performance.

Sometimes, in a rush of generosity, a supervisor might even rate a well-known malingerer as “exceeding expectations”. This makes it very difficult to justify prompt dismissal, and it can also negatively influence organisational culture. Good workers often become understandably disengaged if they see underperforming “lazy” or counter-cultural staff rewarded with acceptable performance ratings.

Train your supervisors to give constructive feedback
So how do you make sure that line managers take performance appraisal seriously? First, line managers should be able to offer regular constructive advice and criticism to their team members, without feeling that they will be accused of bullying. This is a key skill for people with supervisory responsibilities.

“Too often, line managers are reluctant to call people out on poor conduct or weak performance when it happens”

‘Reasonable management action’, which includes corrective advice and warnings about performance, is not bullying if it is delivered in a calm, measured and constructive manner. Keeping a record of occasions when it was necessary to correct an employee’s poor behaviour or underperformance is essential. This can be done by relatively informal, politely worded ‘follow-up’ emails after face-to-face meetings.

For example: ‘Joe, this is a note to confirm that we discussed your punctuality this morning, and you agreed that you would catch an earlier bus in future to be sure you make it to work on time’. Or: ‘Mary, this is a note to confirm that we discussed your last few assignments, and we agreed that you should take the time after each task to review and proofread your work, because we agree it is important that all our communications with clients are professional.’ When the time comes for a formal appraisal, these records can be reviewed, and incorporated into the performance review report.

Some managers may be afraid that keeping a record of small matters may seem like nit-picking, and they don’t like to appear ‘mean’, but unfortunately it is the accumulation of all those small matters that makes the difference between a happily productive workplace culture, and one characterised by petty grievances.

It is kinder by far to staff to give them useful feedback regularly, so that they properly understand the expectations of the job, and continually improve their performance.

Seriously bad behaviour
If persistent or serious misconduct is an issue, there is no need to wait for a periodic performance appraisal. Managers are entitled to deal promptly with serious issues. It is a myth that all employees have the benefit of a ‘three strikes’ rule when it comes to bad behaviour.

“It is kinder by far to staff to give them useful feedback regularly, so that they properly understand the expectations of the job, and continually improve their performance”

While many workplace discipline policies contemplate an escalating series of verbal warnings, then first and final written warnings, it is always open to an employer to move directly to a final warning, or even dismissal, in the case of egregious behaviour which is unsafe, or dishonest, or dangerous in any other respect.

Employers do need to follow fair procedures, and must be particularly careful to make sure they act on reliable information, but they can act decisively when they are confident they have the facts. Where the allegations are serious, immediate suspension on pay is the best first step, followed by an efficient interrogation of the matter.

And if there are reasonable grounds for believing the allegations, swift termination should follow. Employers don’t have to put up with serious misconduct – and neither do colleagues who invariably suffer when bad behaviour is tolerated.