Learning to be a better people person

Jenny Roper
Monday, April 15, 2013

Say the words 'performance management' to a print boss and chances are you'll be greeted by a detailed account of exactly how they have ensured productivity on their latest treasured printing machine. What they probably won't be particularly knowledgeable about, or indeed particularly keen on, is this term's relevance to how they treat their staff.

Most print businesses after all are still fairly small owner-founded, owner-run firms that have thrived, as far as the owner may be concerned, through his or her own energy and enthusiasm, sweeping employees along and trusting them to do their jobs well. Such employers may be disinclined to get too involved in ‘managing an employee’s performance’ for fear of seeming to micro-manage, prompting images of a borderline-paranoid boss forever twitching blinds and looming up unexpectedly behind workers.

And yet it is possible to be too laissez-faire. Those with an understanding of HR know that people work better when they are given a clear idea of what is to be achieved and their own role’s wider significance within an organisation. And so a structured performance management scheme is an essential part of any company’s infrastructure, both to ensure that employees are given the information and support they need and to help an extremely busy print boss remember to do this on a regular basis.

Targets and appraisals
The key tenets of such a scheme, agree HR specialists, should be the setting of clear targets and regular appraisals. Helen Pedder, group head of HR at ClearSky HR consultancy, explains that this should be in place right from the off when a new employee is taken on.

"It’s really crucial you make sure you have a thorough induction process in place," she says. "You should sit down and look at what a new starter’s expected to have learned in the first week, in the first month, in the first couple of months and set some objectives around that. That means you as a manager know exactly what that person is going to be doing and it sets things out clearly for the new starter so they have something to work towards."

To really get the most out of staff, these targets should then be continually reassessed and redefined throughout an employee’s career at the company, says Dani Novick, managing director at Mercury Search & Selection. "A lot of managers set objectives at the beginning of the year and think those are set in stone, but they should be more fluid to reflect the changing needs of the business," she says. "That doesn’t mean moving the goal posts, but involving the employee in the development of the business as a whole."

Then it is crucial to provide regular feedback to employees. "Monitoring progress is key, you’ve got to do it on an ongoing basis," says Novick. "It could be anything from a weekly or quarterly basis but it shouldn’t be longer than quarterly. Just having an annual appraisal is likely to be waste of time, because people tend to focus on what they’ve recently achieved or failed at. If you give it an entire year either to succeed of fail you have no understanding of the nuances and what can be tweaked."

Pedder adds that it’s important not to wait until those more formal meetings to give employees feedback, when this can easily, and most constructively, be delivered as you go along. "Any feedback whether good or a development area should be given as and when it happens, so there shouldn’t really be any surprises when it comes to that quarterly review," she says.

Kirsty Mitchell, owner of SME specialist Halycon HR Consulting, would agree that remembering to feed back all of the things an employee is doing well, so that they know to keep doing them, is crucial. "Giving positive feedback when people have done well is important and I think that’s something people do forget to do," she says.

Up-skilling
Once such a well-structured target-setting and feedback system is in place, print bosses should then be looking to get the best out of their staff by continual training, says Novick. "The more successful companies always look at training people up in other areas," she reports.

Of course, talk of staff constantly upgrading their skills, and being well-praised where appropriate for this, while great in theory, might in practice set alarm bells ringing in printers’ minds. A more highly skilled employee with more responsibilities will, it stands to reason, eventually expect financial remuneration for this.

But this isn’t necessarily always the case, says Novick. "Training alone keeps employees engaged and feeling valued because they are being invested in," she says.

"Particularly with the kind of consolidations that we’ve seen in recent years, there are very few people banging the drum saying we want more money," she continues. "Rather, people are saying ‘this is a viable company that’s helping me put bread on my table and I’m going to be loyal because they look after me, in terms of the training and development they give me. They give me updates on how I’m doing and I know I’m contributing to their success, that’s good enough’."

But even so, there are certain jobs that don’t lend themselves quite as well to an employee continually bettering themselves. In some roles, you simply need a person consistently and competently performing a role in a certain way.

Halycon’s Mitchell does concede that this is the case and that consequently the performance management approach won’t need to be quite as extensive here. But she points out that having a well structured performance management scheme is not just about pushing people to do more, but also ensuring standards don’t slip.

"I always have this question about people doing lower level work. People will be saying ‘I’m a receptionist, I do my work, I don’t want to do anything else, I don’t want my career developed, I’m happy doing this, I’m not interested in having an appraisal’," she says. "And no, you probably aren’t going to be setting objectives and having a whole development plan for those people. But you should still be making regular contact with them, even just for 10 minutes every so often."

Protection plan
Crucially, Mitchell explains, a properly implemented performance management procedure will give a company a clearly defined plan of action, and most importantly legal protection, in those hopefully very rare instances when an employee is really underperforming.

She explains that the course of action here should involve first taking the person aside and having an informal chat with them, then implementing a series of formal meetings to set goals and timeframes in which these targets for improvement need to have been achieved.

"If the person then improves, that’s great; but if they don’t, and if you can demonstrate that you have gone through a formal procedure, then that protects you against claims of discrimination and unfair dismissal because you have given that employee plenty of warnings and the chance to improve," she says.

Not only will such a system protect a company if the dismissed employee then lodges an unfair dismissal claim, it should, by dealing more quickly with the issue than if it was allowed to fester, protect the company from such a claim ever being brought in the first place. Because, in theory, you would have identified a problem early on and either worked with the employee to remedy it, or, if all else fails, released the employee well before they would have racked up the two-years’ service required to qualify for an unfair dismissal claim.

Although the ominous spectre of legal wranglings should put pay to this, the final objection from small businesses without an official performance management scheme in place, might well be that they simply don’t have the time to implement one. The counter argument to this from the experts, however, is that such companies don’t have the time not to.

"If you have a good system and it’s running effectively it should be less time consuming than dealing with problems later on," says Mitchell. "It’s investing the time as you’re going along."

Novick adds that saying there’s no time for encouraging staff to better themselves and take ownership of the business’s direction, is a very short-sighted approach. "Print bosses can make time for performance management assessments by having a stronger management team in place, and the only way you’re going to get that is by putting the time in. It’s about recognising talent and then taking a bit of time out to see how you could better use that talent," she says. "And that’s key to succession planning. It’s not just about making sure people get opportunities to develop, it’s about making sure you’ve got another line of management coming up the ranks."

Whichever way you look at it, then, a formal performance management scheme should seem something of a no-brainer. Not only will it ensure employees are fully supported in developing their skillsets and in really working the way that best suits the company in question, but it will also ensure that any instances of poor performance are dealt with in a professional and legally sound way.

So while it might be tempting to dismiss the term ‘performance management’ as HR jargon, and the kind of concept only a control-freak would stoop to, print bosses would actually do well to give the idea some serious time.

TOP TIPS: PERFORMANCE
Taking on new employees
Performance management should start right from the very first stages of recruiting someone. Ensuring an employee is performing exactly how you’d like them to can often be a case of getting the right person in the first place. This doesn’t just mean the right person with the right skills for the job, but also someone who complements the aims and values of your business.

Once you’ve hired the right person, a thorough induction process will be critical. This way the new starter will know right from the start what their role should entail.

Then set very specific objectives about what the new starter should be up to speed on in the first couple of weeks and then first couple of months. Before this is even communicated to the new starter, their manager will need to sit down and think carefully about what they would like their employee to achieve, and how this will aid not only the continuance but also growth of the business. It sounds obvious but many don’t take enough time over this.

Setting targets
Thinking carefully about what an employee should achieve and how it will help the business should be the underlying principle of all target-setting.

Another golden rule is to ensure that the employee is very clear about what performance is expected from them and how their success here will be measured. Give them the chance to voice any confusion or doubts about what has been asked of them and make it clear they can always seek further clarification at any point as they go along.

This is particularly important where targets are being set for future personal development, as the employee will need to know when they need to be performing at a certain level by.

Many HR experts advocate the ‘SMART’ approach to target setting. This means goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Don’t be afraid to reassess targets as you go along. This doesn’t mean moving the goal posts, but rather constantly checking the targets you have set an individual continue to serve the company.

Equally, don’t make false promises. If your employees deliver on what you have asked them to do, you need to deliver whatever you have promised in return, whether that be a financial reward, a promotion or simply recognition of what they’ve achieved.

Be aware that not everyone in the company will be looking to constantly progress their career. For these individuals keen just to do a good job on a day-to-day basis a 10 minute appraisal every so often, to just check all is well, may well suffice. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming all employees involved in seemingly more repetitive, routine jobs will fit this bill, however. There’s always another area a machine supervisor could become expert in, for example, making them more valuable and, just as importantly, feel valued.

Delivering feedback
Most agree that a yearly appraisal is the absolute minimum, with some even suggesting that this actually might be a waste of time without more regular, supporting appraisals. Quarterly appraisals are advocated by many. Remember that formal appraisals might only take as little time as 15-30 minutes and will pay dividends in boosting performance and nipping any issues in the bud early on.

Don’t forget that an appraisal can take the shape of informal feedback delivered in the course of the working day or as part of other more general meetings. More formal appraisals will still be needed, however, to consolidate this.

Formal appraisals should be delivered by no more than one or two managers, to avoid making the employee feel intimidated. Managers should have prepared for the meeting, however, by asking those that the employee comes into contact with regularly for feedback. This might involve talking to customers if the employee holds a client-facing role.

Encourage the employee to assess their own performance beforehand, perhaps compiling evidence of good work, or thinking of areas where they’d like more support, in advance.

Where an employee is under performing
Act immediately. Take the individual aside to have an informal chat to identify any areas where the firm could be supporting them to perform better.

If problems persist, a more formal approach will be needed. This is where having a well-structured performance management procedure in place will be invaluable. At the very least companies need something written in their discipline procedure covering poor performance. This procedure should involve regular meetings with the person to warn them they’re not performing to the expected standard and to set targets for what should have improved by when. Following such a procedure will protect the employer from accusations of unfair dismissal (actionable if the person has been at the company for two years or at least one year if employed before 6 April 2012), or discrimination if, after all other avenues have been explored, they have to be dismissed.

Make all conversations here about the individual’s performance in the job rather than about them as a person, to avoid comments being taken personally.

Rewarding good performance
Be as proactive in praising good work as you are in combating sub-standard performance. Remember that people won’t necessarily realise they’re doing something well. Giving instant feedback on this will not only boost morale, but will also ensure they don’t try a different tack when they’re already doing something well.

Don’t make the mistake of avoiding praising people for fear they’ll demand pay rises. Remember that in this current climate particularly, many employees don’t necessarily expect rises but to be treated well for doing a good job. Be sure to enforce the ethos that you’re already rewarding staff financially for strong performance through their annual salary.

Remember also that training and career development opportunities motivate many in a more genuine and lasting way than money. And other rewards for good performance might include staff outings and small prizes.

If you do want to incentivise good performance with pay rises or bonuses, ensure this is implemented as an intelligent, performance-based system rather than a system of automatic yearly pay rises. This will ensure staff are genuinely going the extra mile and contributing to the company’s bottom line before the company forks out, and that the company isn’t entering into a system of financial reward it can’t sustain.

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