The Case of the Well-Meaning Manager

Mona complained to her HR partner venting for over 30 minutes. Her last sentences were, “I’m so sick of Jim’s work – we need to let him go. I hate to say it, but he’s got to go.”

The Hard Truth – Jack, a 10-year HR veteran and the department’s HR partner, took a deep breath, tried to put on a brave face, but then looked directly at Mona and gave her the truth she did not want to hear. “Mona, you’re not going to want to hear this, but you’ve rated him above average for the last two years on every appraisal and you’ve given him an average raise each year. We can’t just suddenly fire someone for performance issues when that person has been rated above average consistently over a long period of time.”

The Right Thing for the Wrong Reason – Mona’s frustration grew. “I can explain those ratings.” She paused and worked hard not to let her eyes roll at this irony. “I have been reading all of those memos that have been coming out of the HR department about being a positive leader. I even read a book on valuing employee contribution and the power of positive feedback in helping increase performance.”

She paused, took a breath, and began to realize her mistake. “I’ve simply been trying to uplift his performance with a positive approach in his reviews and I thought giving him only an average raise would send a signal that he needed to improve to get more.”

Start Over Today – Jack said, “Mona, there is nothing we can do in the near term – we’ve set ourselves up for a negative situation and most likely a legal problem if we terminate Jim right now.” Jack thought for a minute and then added some encouragement. “But, Mona, if you will start documenting his performance issues and build a case properly, within a reasonable period of time, we will have a foundation to help Jim either improve or be dismissed.”

Your Case Actions

Leaders improve their skill by acting on the things they learn, trying them out, and experiencing the impact. In each of our case-feeds we provide a few simple calls-to-action to help you implement the principles taught in the case. 

Call-to-Action #1

Notice how Mona put off having the real difficult conversation. Is there a hard conversation you need to have that you should be gearing up for?

Call-to-Action #2

This is a great topic to share with your team. Take some time in your next staff meeting and teach your leaders how to have a hard conversation.

Key Teaching Points

With each case we add a few teaching points and resource suggestions. These help leaders explore the principles of the case a little deeper.

Principles to Consider When Dealing with Negative Performance Issues

The goal of corrective action is not to punish a person, but to modify behavior. While the leader should be empathetic and polite, the leader should also be direct and manage with courage. An honest conversation early in the observation cycle will help more than anything else you can do.

Leaders are responsible for providing honest and accurate feedback along with coaching to help the person understand how to get back on track if they are underperforming. Leaders are also responsible to make sure employees are adequately trained. Make sure you look at skill-gaps as part of your background work in assessing the situation.

Progression techniques include documenting deficiencies and coaching over time. Though these processes may take longer, they are the fairest and most effective when dealing with performance issues. Progression techniques also provide facts for a successful legal defense if needed. Progression techniques include the following types of actions:

    Verbal Reminder

    This is verbal coaching letting the individual know they are not performing the way they should. Provide objective context and provide specific suggestions on how they can up their game. Be positive and schedule a follow-up time to meet again. Document in your notes that you held the meeting and then document the results you have observed. Frequently, a verbal reminder is adequate to move someone into higher performance.

    Written Reminder

    When the deficiency continues, you may want to formally provide the individual with a letter that informs them in writing that you have observed deficiencies. Provide objective examples. Provide suggestions on actions they should take. You may express in the written reminder that they could be subject to further disciplinary action, or even termination if the deficiency continues. You will want to keep a copy of this letter for your records. At this point, it is also a good time to begin to involve your HR partner.

    Performance Plan or Final Reminder

    If the deficiencies are not remedied by the individual, you may opt to a final written reminder in the form of a performance plan. A performance plan gives a specific timeline for when you expect the deficiency to be corrected. It also gives specific actions you expect the individual to take, which could include regular check-in meetings and status reports. A performance plan may end in termination, in reinstatement, or in an extension of the plan. You should make it clear that you have all three of those options at your disposal.

    Sample Performance Plan

    Sample Performance Review

    Sample Termination Letter

    These samples are provided to give you a starting point only and are not valid legal documents for your organization until you have consulted with HR and/or your legal team.

    Be Professional and Think Ahead

    When issuing a corrective behavior document or conducting a corrective coaching session make sure to be empathetic. You will also want to create plenty of time for the event. Avoid scheduling meetings right before or after the event. You never know if you’ll need more time and with these types of activities you do not want to feel pressured to leave the meeting early.

    Manage the Atmosphere

    Create an atmosphere where the person will be able to digest what you are saying. Is your office clean? Are you using a conference room? Will those places allow for a non-distraction meeting.

    Be Direct

    When dealing with performance issues be direct, be honest, be empathetic, be objective. Err on the side of kindness. When the time comes to terminate an employee, give them as much as you can in terms of benefits and severance. Too many organizations want to give the minimum – that creates a deeper wedge in the relationship and it also puts the manager and HR partner in an awkward position. Employees today may be customers, advocates, or stakeholders tomorrow.

    Think about Risk

    Sometimes a leader who is well-meaning may find themselves in a hostile or negative situation when delivering negative news about personal performance. This is why it is always wise to counsel with your HR partner and to roleplay the scenario. Roleplays are exceptionally useful and will help you anticipate negative situations that could escalate.

    A best practice for delivering negative performance news is to make sure there is another manager or someone from security discretely located close by. You may also want to coordinate with the Information Technology department to have all of their system’s credentials turned off during your meeting. Although, there may also be a case for leaving their credentials on. That is a conscious decision you’ll need to make in advance.

    Choose the Timing Wisely

    When termination is inevitable, choose the time to deliver the bad news carefully. Friday afternoons are the worst time to terminate someone – they then have a long weekend where they cannot take any action to move forward in a new direction. Monday or Tuesday are the best days. Mornings or right before lunch are preferable to the end-of-the-day times. Again, when someone is terminated in the afternoon they have a long night ahead of them where they can take no real action.

    Think about the Rest of the Team Too

    When you terminate someone, if at all possible, arrange to have the rest of the people in the organization that work close by them to take a break or be somewhere else so the individual can collect their belongings in a dignified way.

    There will be members of your team who will be glad you finally acted. There will also be members of the team who will be mortified that you delivered bad news to someone about their performance, and/or that you terminated them. Conduct a team meeting after you let someone go. Do not go into specifics. Simply explain that _[name]_ does not work here any longer. Reinforce the value of the team and your commitment to them and to the company. Ask for questions, but don’t discuss specific details of the case as this will violate confidences. While you will not be able to cover lots of detail in the meeting, your team will appreciate that you’ve held the meeting and it will increase the esprit de corps in general.

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    Examples of Other Cases

    360 Transparency

    Hello Grace, good morning.

    Good morning Ralph.

    Grace, I have something I need you to do – we have this new product hitting the market as you know. Marketing is pushing us to get the customer support documents in place so they can be published at the same time as the product’s release. I know you have a lot going on, but …

    Grace heads back to the office stewing, thinking: “The XYZ product is not as important as the five other products I support. I’m going to prioritize as best I can and just see what happens, but I’m not going to sweat it if I can’t get to it.”

    Case of Low EI

    Angela is a highly successful career project manager – at least, that’s what her resume said. She interviewed well and you and the rest of your hiring team agreed she’d be a great fit. You offered her the job and with a smile and a handshake (pre-covid era of course) she was on the job and doing great work.

    Fast-forward 13 months and you have noticed a few things. Angela, true to her resume, is in fact an amazing project manager. She is a terrific planner, she knows how to layout the details of a project and make sure resources are assigned and tasks get accomplished on time. But… Nobody wants to work with her.

    Is Bob Motivated?

    Jacob turned to Bob and with a huge smile said, “What an incredible company meeting. Did you see the look on everyone’s face when the new plan was rolled out? And what about those bonuses – we can really make some bank here.”

    “Yeah, I thought it was rather interesting.” Bob commented.

    Bob’s tone was neither excited nor subdued – it was just normal.

    The almost casual response of Bob’s seemed odd to Jacob – it felt out of place. Everyone else in the crowd was buzzing with excitement – so why not Bob?

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