Are your people performing?

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Jane Caven of HR consultants Sagegreen explains how employers can drive up staff performance in the recession – and avoid potential pitfalls. The last economic downturn had a fundamental effect on how businesses view their performance and in particular the performance of their people. While most employers produce precise metrics on the performance of plant, equipment, systems and processes, there is often little or no clear assessment of people. In tough economic times, when performance comes under increased scrutiny, employers can shift their position rapidly and dramatically. It is not unusual to find that, having tolerated under-performance over long periods of time, they find they can no longer do so. They quickly try to move from loose or no formal standards to much more stringent and often punitive standards, moving swiftly to formal action against those employees whose performance is seen to be below par. From the employee’s perspective, this can come as a ‘bolt out of the blue’, leading to confusion as to exactly what is required, mistrust at what is seen as a sudden change in position and a very negative impact on morale. This in turn often leads to employment disputes, stress and employee absence – all hugely debilitating and costly to both the employer and employees. Employers can achieve the necessary improvements in performance by implementing a simple, step-by-step approach: Self-assessment – Ask employees to assess their current level of performance. In most situations, individuals are aware of shortfalls in performance, but if not, their perceptions of what is required can be changed quite quickly by clear and measured feedback. The benefits of this are to: Increase an employee’s awareness of his/her strengths and weaknesses Provide a focus for skills development Give positive messages to all those with whom the individual works with respect to involvement and development Improve the performance of the individual (and his/her teams) Provide a means to assess improvements (or otherwise) over time. Establish key principles of performance management – Set clear expectations of what is required and make sure that there is continuous appraisal of how employees are doing. Highlight the positive as well as the negative in order to reinforce desired behaviours and eliminate those that are unwanted. Develop measures of success – It is vital that employees understand what is expected of them if they are to be engaged and motivated. Managers should develop this understanding with each individual, for example, by identifying regular tasks and setting measurable objectives, including one or two very ambitious targets that they can achieve if their level of performance is outstanding. Create quantitative measures – Most work processes can be measured in terms of whether or not the employee is meeting expectations, which gives the individual visibility of progress towards improvement. The first step is for employers to review the key quantitative measures currently used to indicate performance. Create qualitative measures – Some factors do not easily lend themselves to numeric measurement and are more difficult to manage. But managers can work with employees to develop a common understanding of factors that are critical to the success of their roles. Informal review – Employers must develop a wide range of day-to-day actions and methods to ensure that everyone is clear about what is required of them and that they achieve the targets set. This would typically include an example for one person who is among the best performers and one who is among the worst (albeit not necessarily poor). For each person, there will be a structured model for the manager to establish appropriate actions that will help with setting expectations, giving feedback, motivation, rewards and recognition. Extending high performers – Performance management is not just about under-performance. A key aspect is the development of high performers, including action plans and engaging high performers in decisions about their own development. Addressing poor performance – It is key to address poor performers or ‘difficult people’. This is an area where professional HR experience can assist the employer in dealing with aspects of employment law (and in particular areas such as ‘capability procedures’). This would typically include how to distinguish between aggressive, assertive and non-assertive behaviour, as well as how to handle conflict. Creating performance improvement plans – This element helps employers develop an accurate and common understanding of the competencies required for good performance, based on the organisation’s specific requirements. This includes agreement on key competencies for individual roles and an action plan to improve the employee’s level of ability. HR guidance is available in the Forum’s Employment Guide: For further information, contact the Forum’s member helpline on 0845 130 1722.
We explain how employers can drive up staff performance in the recession – and avoid potential pitfalls.