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The toughest job—Poor performers

 Reviews are over, and you may have pondered whether or not you’d be better off on a different team. You know, the kind that gives out more 3.5s and 4.0s. The kind where you’d be surrounded by lame wannabes and get a promotion faster. You’ve probably decided against that kind of move—a wise decision. However, you may be wondering why this inequity exists. Where did those lame wannabes come from? Why are they here? What’s being done about it?

Eric AsideActually, lame teams get exposed within a year or two, but it would be better for everyone involved if they never got started. That’s the point of this column.

Well, take a look in the mirror. Have you allowed poor performers to slide by, thus giving your group easy annual 3.0 targets? Have you let entry-level employees stay entry level for years? Have you passed mediocre employees on to another manager or team rather than deal with them? Guess what? You are the problem.

Eric AsideIn Microsoft’s old rating system, ratings of 2.5 and 3.0 were undesirable. Ratings of 4.0 and 4.5 were highly desirable. A 3.5 rating was readily accepted and the most common.

What did you expect?

The poor performers aren’t the problem. As far as they can tell, nothing is wrong. Sure, they aren’t excelling, but they are getting by, and that seems to be enough. You haven’t driven higher expectations for their performance. As a result, the poor performers stay. They find groups where they can be more comfortable. They hire mediocre folks like themselves. Finally, they drag down their orgs, then scatter like rats from a sinking ship.

But it’s not their fault; it’s your fault. You must expect more from them. I know it is hard. Poor performers aren’t necessarily mean and nasty. They are often kind and thoughtful. They have families and obligations. They care about doing a good job, and they try to do the right thing. Telling them that caring and trying aren’t good enough isn’t easy.

Get over it and get over yourself. Going easy on mediocre employees is disrespectful and distasteful. You aren’t doing them, yourself, or the company any favors. In fact, you are cruelly and selfishly harming all three.

Why? Because you are setting up your underperformers for failure. You’ve managed to create a situation where every workday your employees wake up, get dressed, and head into a job in which they will fail. Do you know what that feels like? You owe them the decency of explaining where they stand and what they can do to improve.

Eric AsideI’m being overly harsh here to make a point. If managers said nothing, that would be setting up poor employees for failure; however, managers do typically discuss performance with employees. Unfortunately, they often aren’t as clear and firm as they should be, because they don’t want to seem cold-hearted or cruel. Actually, being clear and firm is the kindest, most constructive thing managers can do.

Bite the bullet

So, say you’ve got employees who aren’t meeting your expectations in one or more areas. What do you do? Simple. In your weekly one-on-ones, talk to them about your expectations, where they are falling short, and what meeting your expectations would look like. Tell them not to worry about writing it down, you’ll send an e-mail.

Why send your expectations in an e-mail? It’s all for the lawyers, right? Wrong! You write down your expectations so that they are clear and unambiguous.

One of the biggest problems with performance issues is inherent miscommunication. If your employees were clear on expectations, there wouldn’t be a problem. When they are falling short, your employees must be crystal clear on why and what they can do to improve. A short e-mail will do; include bullets on each of your expectations, where they are lacking, and what success would be.

Seeking professional help

But what if you don’t see improvement? What if you feel a 2.5 may be in progress? Contact your HR generalist immediately. Your generalist will work with you to ensure that your employees are getting the right information and the right help if they need it.

Sometimes performance issues are caused by personal matters. Depending on the situation, Microsoft may have an obligation to accommodate employees through such times. Your HR generalist will know all the options and can properly get your employees the help they deserve. Do not play psychologist, doctor, or lawyer for your employees. Leave those matters for your generalist to refer employees to qualified agents.

Failure is not an option

If the performance issues persist, your generalist can help you find the best course of action. While there are cases of re-leveling or changing roles, the more common situation comes down to presenting employees with three choices:

  • Voluntarily leave the company
  • Improve
  • Involuntarily leave the company

Microsoft is very good about helping employees make the transition, which is why having your generalist involved is so beneficial. Often when presented with clear options and failing expectations, employees will be relieved to leave the company and find a new opportunity where they have a better chance of success. This is the second best result, and it happens more often than you might think.

Eric AsideNot every employee with performance issues gets the same choices. HR can help you tailor the proper response to each unique situation. Here I’m describing a common set of choices.

The goal is success

The best result is when your employees improve their performance enough to meet or exceed your expectations. You get back great employees. You don’t need to fire anyone. You don’t need to spend months hiring someone new. You don’t need to bring new people up to speed. Your employees keep their jobs and their esteem, and they become successful. It’s a huge win for everyone.

So, if your poor performers choose to improve, you must believe that they can and be part of their success. Even if you are sure that this person has no chance of turning his career around, you must trust that he will somehow overcome the obstacles.

Why? Because it’s better if he succeeds, and because he knows if you doubt him. People can tell when you don’t believe in them, and they assume it means that they don’t have a chance to succeed at Microsoft. Remember, if you don’t believe that your employees can change, you are setting them up for failure. That can have tragic consequences.

Ask and you shall receive

To set up your employees for success, you must go back to setting clear expectations for solid performance. Your expectations must be in writing to minimize misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Review these expectations weekly, and discuss in writing and in person where there is improvement and what remains to be done.

Often poor performers will show an initial spike in improvement. Managers get excited about this and tell the employees that they are pleased, only to have the employees top out or even regress. The problem is that the employees get the sense that they are exceeding expectations, when in fact they are doing better but still falling short.

You must be supportive, but focus on success by saying, “Hey, it is so great to see your significant improvement. I really appreciate your efforts. By continuing this trend and improving in these other areas, you will begin to meet the expectations of your assignment and be on the road to success.” This reassures an employee that you notice and care, while still setting a clear bar.

Often a poor performer who doesn’t have what it takes to turn things around will realize her shortcomings after she puts in her best effort and still falls short. If you support their success, employees can leave voluntarily on good terms knowing that you treated them fairly and with respect. You gave them a real chance.

You can’t always get what you want

In cases where poor performers are too stubborn or prideful to admit that they can’t meet your expectations, you will have all the proper documentation needed for an involuntary resignation (firing). Your HR generalist will help you and your employees through this difficult step.

If you do need to fire an employee, you’ll have to send out the awkward e-mail to the group, “[Employee] is no longer with Microsoft and will be pursuing other opportunities.” The most difficult aspect of this is that you can’t say anything about why it happened. You must protect your former employee’s privacy, even if that employee chooses to tell people a different story.

It is common for members of your group to wonder what happened. They’ll ask you why an employee left. Although you are not permitted to tell them anything about the private situation of your former employee, you can answer their real question. When people ask about someone else’s situation, they almost always are truly concerned about their own job security. That’s selfish perhaps, but also quite natural.

Use the opportunity to give them feedback that will help them perform better and to reassure them about their own standing. You can also reassure them that Microsoft has strong expectations of employees because the company knows that we will only succeed when we have extraordinary people performing at their best in a healthy and supportive environment. That is a message we all can be proud of.

Eric AsideWhat do you do if you meet a former employee at the supermarket or parking lot? Won’t that be awkward? No, it really isn’t. I’ve had my share of poor performers. I had to fire a few of them, and I do occasionally run into these former employees. It’s great to see them. Because we were constructive and truly shared the same goal—setting up the employees for success—the employees are typically quite happy to see me. We talk about their career progress, and usually it is going better than before. That’s the whole point.

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