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by Mike Smith | March 10, 2009

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When employees are not meeting goals or have performance problems, the objective is to bring their performance back to acceptable or better.

The first communication should be a coaching session that includes what the expected performance should be and a commitment by the employee to improve. Coaches shouldn't issue warnings, at least not at first. Coaching is an attempt to help; a warning is a threat. It must be made clear that termination is a consequence of the employee's performance, not a punishment by management.

Here are some guidelines to follow to ensure that a coaching session is productive.

  1. Set a meeting to discuss performance issues. The objective is to help the employee improve, and to become and stay successful.

  2. Focus on the actual behavior. Get the employee's agreement on what the actual behavior has been.

  3. Compare the actual behavior with what is expected. Discuss how the actual behavior is a problem (for the employee, for the team, for the organization). If the employee does not see the behavior as a problem, explain how it is a problem.

  4. Ask the employee, "How is this happening?" or, "What are you doing that leads to this?" Discuss the aspects of the problematic behavior with the employee: how the employee prepares or doesn't; how the employee responds, doesn't respond or responds poorly; how we all learn from ineffective behavior (no one gets everything right the first time and everyone makes mistakes or loses focus occasionally).

  5. Ask the employee "What can you do to prevent, improve or ensure doing the right thing?" If the employee has a plan of action that is acceptable, it is a good idea to agree to that plan, because the employee will then be more committed to it. [Do not move forward without a plan.] ~

  6. Ask, "What do you need from me?" Unless the employee wants you to take responsibility, if it is in your capability, agree to provide any help.

  7. Set expectations. "How will I know if it's working?" "What will I see you doing?" Allow for improvement steps (not so gradual that it takes too long to improve, but not so drastic that it is unrealistic).

  8. Set a date by which improvement is complete. Explain that progress is wanted. Consistency of improvement and staying at the improved level is what is expected. The objective of all this effort is improvement and helping the employee to become and stay successful.

  9. Set checkpoints (progress reviews) of no longer than a week apart. For some things it might be every day or two.

    • If the employee does not have a plan or is unwilling to discuss it, you lay out a plan and encourage suggestions and questions. If the employee makes suggestions, include one or more in the plan, if possible. Then, because this is more your plan than the employee's, you ask, "Will you commit to doing this?". If the employee does not commit, you have to indicate that a lack of willingness to improve is the same as saying, "I will continue to do or repeat the (problem behavior, mistakes, ineffective or poor performance). That is a problem!"

    • If the employee won't commit, e.g., "I've been doing it this way for (x) period and I think it's fine. You can't tell me how to do my job (don't know how it really works, haven't been around long enough to know what's right, etc.)," send the employee home to think it over. Not committing to improve a performance problem is the same as quitting. If the employee won't commit, bring in a high level manager or human resources professional to talk with the employee. If the employee still won't commit (which rarely happens), termination is necessary.

  10. When you observe improvement and/or the employee is doing what the improvement plan requires, congratulate the employee, and encourage the employee to keep it up. Don't wait for the checkpoint. If you do not observe improvement or you do observe a repeat of poor/inappropriate/ineffective behavior, problem solve around what is needed and what the employee is doing wrong. ~

  11. At checkpoints make certain to congratulate, encourage and see if there is any assistance needed from you.

Beyond the technical aspect of setting goals during a coaching session, it is critical to pay attention to certain interpersonal issues:

  • Repeat that the objective of the meeting is for the employee to be successful.
  • Focus on behavior, not value judgments
  • Set specific objectives regarding what should be done, when and how.
  • Give an employee with more service a longer time to improve. Also, set the time for improvement in accordance with the specific behavior involved. For example, an employee who has 2 years' service should have more time to get back on track than one with three or four months service. And, a behavior that is completely within the employee's control, e.g., not having loud disagreements with co-workers in front of customers, does not require time to improve or steps toward improvement. For many behaviors, 2-4 weeks for short service employees and 4-6 weeks for longer service employees can be appropriate, depending upon the complexity of the performance in question.
  • Be clear about consequences. "If this continues we might (will) have to end your employment (terminate you)".
  • Don't use the term probation or probationary period. The term has legal implications and means that once past probation, the employee has more assurance of staying employed.
  • Don't threaten, e.g., "If you don't do this I'll fire you". It is more appropriate to give the same message with responsibility on the employee to improve with termination as a consequence of failure to improve. For example, "If you are not able to bring your behavior/performance up to (the expected goal) we may be forced to terminate you (ask you to leave)." Our objective is always to bring the employee back to, or up to, a successful level; not to terminate. If the employee does not perform, the consequence of the employee's behavior is termination. In all cases, except position elimination or layoff, a termination is a result of what the employee does nor does not do.
  • Don't have termination as a consequence of the first (and maybe second) coaching attempt. This just creates an adversarial or threatening environment, and is counter-productive to the success-oriented climate we wish to maintain.

Mike Smith, SPHR, is the Director of Human Resources for Apartment Search, the largest Rental Relocation company in the US. He has 30 years of experience in Human Resources and Training working in the telecommunications, engineering and service industries. He has 33 previous publications and writes as a hobby. He can be reached at ms@apartmentsearch.com.

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