HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Poor Performance Requires Action, Not an Evaluation

Reprinted form “Productive Workplaces” (October 2005), the HR Group newsletter. 

If you give an employee a poor performance evaluation, it begs an extremely important question: “What have you done about the poor performance besides fill in an evaluation form and put it in the employee’s file?” The document itself accomplishes absolutely nothing and is a complete waste of time; it will not alter performance and as evidence for dismissal for cause, it has no legal validity on it’s own without proof of some other action to correct the poor performance. How can you give someone a poor performance evaluation if you haven’t done anything else to try and rectify the behaviour? Why is the employee still on staff to be evaluated in the first place if the performance is poor? 

Through out the years we have consistently referred to the importance of ongoing performance management in this newsletter. In our consulting practice we continually find that by far the majority of the issues that we run across are directly due to a lack of ongoing performance management; even in the face of poor performance evaluations.

There is the all too frequent case of the senior manager or business owner or politician who will not address performance issues, but will let the employee sit there with little or no responsibility until the employee finally realizes that they had better resign. We still cannot explain what the rationale for this is. Is it fear of admitting failure in hiring the employee in the first place? Is it the inability to be perceived by the rest of the staff as the “bad” guy? Is it the wish to avoid any severance package? Or is it part of the prevailing culture of not being prepared to take a firm stance with regards to the actions of others? Whatever the reason, it occurs quite frequently and is neither helpful to the organization or the employee involved. If there is a problem, it must be confronted and dealt with. Either the employee’s performance improves or they should be terminated. Giving the employee a poor performance evaluation will not change anything. The other practice that frequently goes hand-in-hand with the poor evaluation is the withholding of any increase in compensation that would normally be due. This also accomplishes nothing.

There is also the pervasive opinion in many organizations that when you have an employee that is not performing well and you wish to terminate for cause, the first thing you have to do is to document the poor performance in an evaluation and then you can terminate if the performance continues. We frequently get enquiries from senior managers, business owners, and politicians who wish to terminate an employee and ask us whether or not we have an appropriate performance evaluation form that they can use. In any court case for wrongful dismissal (or arbitration hearing in the case of a unionized employee), the first thing that the lawyer for the terminated employee will ask is, “when was the poor performance first brought to the attention of the employee?” If you cannot show that the performance issues were brought to the employee’s attention at the time that they occurred and with appropriate ongoing follow-up, then you will always lose your case unless the employee was guilty of theft or some other overt problem. Performance evaluations that purport to document and prove poor performance will not hold up, unless there is ample evidence of progressive discipline, which requires that the performance issues be addressed on an ongoing basis from the time that they become evident.

In other words, the actual performance evaluation is not required. What is required is attention to the performance issues, appropriate action to assist in their resolution, and, failing their resolution, progressive discipline through to timely termination. This is what you need in order to prove that you have tried to responsibly deal with the poor performance; not a performance evaluation form.

Let’s use an analogy that most of us are familiar with; the raising of our children. When they exhibit poor behaviour, do we wait for the appropriate evaluation time or do we deal with the behaviour when it occurs? Do we ignore the behaviour because we don’t wish to hurt their feelings or because we are not comfortable in dealing with it? We’ve all, unfortunately, seen the results of such lack of responsible parenting. The same applies to being responsible for staff. If you do not accept that responsibility, the results are harmful to the employee as well as the organization as a whole and other well performing staff.

Performance evaluation has been a fundamental management principle for a long time. Most managers would never dream of saying that they don’t believe in performance evaluation. Yet there have been many respected experts in organizational behavior such as Edwards Deming and Edward Lawler III who have been saying for a long time that performance evaluation is a useless and damaging practice. On the other hand, they point out the usefulness and necessity of ongoing performance management, which necessitates proper recruitment and orientation, proper coaching and training, and progressive discipline, including timely termination, when necessary. It is interesting to note that the latest management “catchword” is “Hire slow; fire fast”. Most managers do exactly the opposite. Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins (2000), in Abolishing Performance Appraisals, clearly articulate this whole issue and clearly detail what is really required to successfully manage performance.

If respected organizational experts have been saying for many years that performance evaluations are useless, then why is the practice so ingrained in our organizational culture? Because it offers an easy out for dealing with difficult and sometimes emotional issues that we would rather avoid. We can hide behind the performance evaluation process. We can let everything wait until evaluation time. We can deal with the issues formally through an impersonal, bureaucratic, and at arms length process rather than actually coming to grips with them in a constructive manner. Actually coming to grips with performance issues necessitates that we openly and honestly confront the employee with the issues when they occur and try to rectify behaviour through individual coaching and other forms of performance management. It is all too easy, however, to avoid such timely and personal confrontation, to avoid such difficult and emotional issues, and to hide behind the impersonal evaluation form. 

It also takes our time which we think should be spent doing “management” work such as planning, directing, and organizing. Yet the biggest responsibility of any manager is getting things done through other employees. A manager’s primary responsibility, therefore, is to manage the performance of those employees and to deal with any issues that arise. If the manager abdicates this responsibility, then they abdicate their position as a manager. It is cheaper to hire another “worker” without having to pay the management salary.

Poor performance requires action, not an evaluation.

References

Coen, T. and Jenkins, M., 2000. Abolishing Performance Appraisals. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.