Performance Management & Managing Under Performance - Tips & Guidance

Posted in : Webinar Recordings on 4 February 2021
Caroline Reidy
The HR Suite
Issues covered: Performance Management; Managing Under Performance

In this month's webinar, Caroline McEnery, Managing Director of The HR Suite and HR and Employment Law Expert, provides tips and guidance for promoting proactive performance management processes and managing under performance.

The Recording


Rolanda: Good morning, everyone. Iā€™m Rolanda from Legal-Island, part of the learning and development section of Legal-Island, and I'm joined this morning by Caroline McEnery, managing director of The HR Suite. You all are probably very familiar with Caroline. She is a regular contributor to Legal-Island, both in terms of articles, webinars, and speaking at the Annual Review of Employment Law.

In terms of Caroline's experience, she's a past member of the Low Pay Commission and she's also worked as an adjudicator at the Workplace Relations Commission. She's completed a Master's in human resources through the University of Limerick. She is CIPD accredited as well as being a trained mediator, so a bit of an all-arounder.

Caroline: Thank you.

Rolanda: She has worked across various areas of HR for over 20 years in the Kerry Group and in the retail and hospitality sectors where she was the Operations and HR Director of the Garvey Group prior to setting up The HR Suite in 2009.

She speaks widely and writes articles and papers on thought leadership in relation to the future landscape of HR and the challenges and opportunities that presents for employers and employees. There have been certainly lots of challenges this year, Caroline, I have to say.

Today, Caroline is going to be talking about managing performance and managing underperformance. And just before I hand over to Caroline, if you have any questions please use the question box to send them in. We look at those at the end of the session. Caroline, we have received a few questions and we've incorporated those into the subject matter today.

Just before I pass over to Caroline, I just want to mention our upcoming event, The HR Symposium, the title of which is "Employment Engagement in a Hybrid World". It is on the 4th of March 2021, and it's an online event. Anyone who joined us for the Annual Review last year will be familiar with the platform Hopin, which I have to say everyone loved. We had loads of crack on the little chatbox, and people were asking questions and other people answering them, which was great for the speakers, so it was absolutely terrific. We're using the same platform for that.

The early bird for that finishes tomorrow, so if you want to attend at a cheaper rate, please go on to our website and book your slot. We're really looking forward to that. We've lots of great speakers coming up. Really interesting. It's all about employee engagement in a hybrid world and how to do that, and that's been one of the biggest concerns.

You've talked about that quite a lot, Caroline, about keeping people engaged, communicating, and over-communicating. And look, this whole hybrid way of working is going to continue for a while, so getting used to managing performance of remote workers or people working remotely obviously is quite important, particularly as in Ireland now they've published the Remote Working Strategy. I find the title a bit strange, Caroline, "Making Remote Work". It's almost like a little play of words, but I have to say it a few times to get it into my head.

So I'll just hand over to you, Caroline, to talk about performance and underperformance.

Caroline: Thank you so much, Rolanda, and thank you as always. You're always so organised and make it so easy to get the whole process underway, because technology is always the one we worry about.

Good morning, everybody. Delighted to be with you. As Rolanda said, I run a business called The HR Suite. Hopefully, a lot of you are familiar with us at this stage. We also specialise in investigations, outsource investigations for clients. We train investigators and do training for investigators. And we also do training in all elements of HR. One of the things we launched this year's individual training, because previously we would do corporate training for an entire organisation. Whereas now if you want to go on a course, whether that's managing investigations, employment law, etc., you can book in one or two places for individuals in your organisation.

They're very popular. If you're interested, please drop us an email at and we'd be delighted to give you more information. I'll be delivering the programmes myself for the individual ones, and hopefully, you'll find them helpful if you decide they might be right for you.

So, today, I'm going to talk about underperformance. As Rolanda said, I am delighted to welcome any questions that you have. I tried to cover as many of the key areas as I could in relation to what's topical for our clients at the moment.

Setting Performance Standards

For me, the starting point here is the standard you set is the standard you get. I think with performance management, as an organisation, it should be one of our strategic goals. For a lot of us at the minute, last year, I believe, was hair-on-fire panic, get through the year nearly for a lot of HR practitioners because it was such a challenging here with COVID and transitioning to blended work or remote work, or just all the challenges that it presented. Whereas now we're strategically looking at 2021 as "What does the business need in terms of the business strategy and how can the HR strategy support it?"

We operate a five-pillar model around that in terms of your HR strategy. And one of the pillars is all about maximising the performance of your team, which is the area I'm going to talk to you about today.

So, for me, the first starting point is setting that standard at the leadership team in relation to your strategic priorities around managing performance and that concept of the standard you set is the standard you get. For me, I suppose setting that culture that all managers are trained in terms of delivering feedback . . . because remember, you'll have heard me mentioned a lot that a lot of managers end up managing people. Spent their career being a really amazing accountant or a really amazing engineer, and all of a sudden, because they were so good at their technical job, they got promoted and with promotion has come the responsibility for people.

But a lot of people get no training in terms of people management skills. So, for me, it's all about that practical "How do you deliver feedback in a practical way and how do you overcome that fear of upsetting somebody?"

With this whole concept of performance management, I cover all the difference between bullying and performance management. And in Ireland, we have a new code of conduct in relation to bullying, and it specifically calls out the fact that performance management isn't considered to be bullying once it's done in a professional way.

So my first top tip for you today is if you haven't trained your managers, then it's a really important area to give them confidence, and there are lots of tips and tricks in relation to how to do that. Again, it's an area that we provide lots of training and we'll be delighted talk to any of you if that's of interest.

Providing Feedback on Performance

So the next area I'm going to talk about is the whole area of what does that performance management piece look like. For me, the first piece is the importance of on-going feedback, and that process being embedded into your culture and your behaviours. We explain that we have an open culture. We give feedback in an on-going, continuous basis. We don't just hold feedback back for the annual review, and then it's a big surprise to everybody. We're trying to continuously enhance people's talent and performance by giving them on-going feedback.

For me, I think having a competency-based framework that your employees are clear in relation to "What are the behaviours and what is the competence in terms of your job skills that you need to work on and develop?" And the advantage of clearly outlining what they are is it makes it way easier for a manager to give feedback, especially in relation to behavioural issues.

So I'd like to give you an example. People would say to me, "Look, Caroline, Mary is in the accounts team and Mary is just not a team player. But Mary is with us eight years, and you just don't expect anything different from Mary because that's just the way Mary is". And then all of a sudden, the rest of the team are saying, "Look, we're not happy with the way Mary speaks to us, with the way she interacts with us, etc., so you have to start dealing with it".

For me, then, that's a drawing-the-line-in-the-sand conversation, which is, "Mary, look, I'd like to give you some examples of areas that are causing us a concern. And these are behaviours we've seen that you have displayed, which is not in keeping with our culture and our accepted behaviours".

It's way easy to have that conversation with Mary than to be starting to getting to, "Well, Caroline said you said this to her". And then all of a sudden, we've got a he said, she said, and it's likely Mary will be making a grievance complaint to say, "Well, I want to know all the details of the complaint because I want the opportunity to respond".

So, for me, setting the culture which sets the tone, and that needs to be done from the top, the board, the CEO, etc. That cascades down right throughout the organisation.

We've got clear competencies, which are behavioural-based and technical job-based ones that we encourage people to develop in terms of their talent, and also in terms of managers in terms of giving feedback in relation to those areas.

And we also ensure that managers have a forum. We call them task meetings, one-to-one sessions, etc., but there needs to be a forum for giving feedback on a weekly basis so that it's an on-going process. For some organisation, we've upped the ante because now we're doing check-in well-being calls because of the remote nature of what's going on at the moment.

We also need to ensure that managers are giving feedback, because a lot of the time people will say to me, "Caroline know she's not performing to the standard of the job". And I'll say, "So how does Caroline know?" And they say, "Oh, look, she just knows I'm not happy. I keep correcting this stuff and giving it back to her to make it better". And for me, psychic management doesn't work when we're performance managing people.

So expecting people to psychically know what we're thinking just doesn't work, whereas if we bring the person in and we coach, not tell . . . because it's so easy as people managers to tell and to not coach. So we want to make sure that we're starting to coach our team rather than tell.

Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to tell, but then the person isn't developing their skills in any way. So now what we want to do is we want to coach them. Ask them the questions. Obviously, you all know I've written a book called "The Art of Asking the Right Questions", so I'm a big fan of asking questions, coach, develop performance management, and support your team.

I suppose the formalised system of that weekly task meeting or that weekly check-in means that if we set that as the requirement in the organisation, the good managers who will do it anyway and the managers that don't know they should be doing it will all now require to be getting to a certain level.

A lot of the time, people join organisations and leave managers, particularly managers who aren't supporting them and their progression or in their development, etc., within the organisation.

Importance of Induction Processes

So the starting point for me then is that we need to look at what our induction looks like. From the very start when somebody starts, particularly now in the blended world that we're in . . . I appreciate that lots of jobs remote working doesn't work, but for a lot of organisations, they are operating remotely and they're also operating in a hybrid world. So making sure we do a really good induction is really important.

What does that induction look like? Really make sure that we're facilitating lots of interaction during that induction and there's time allocated to do the conversations, revisit the learning, etc. We're missing the sitting by Nellie piece that would have happened where the person could automatically easily ask questions as they encounter them. So I would say in terms of performance management, make sure that we do a good induction to ensure that we're setting people up for success.

Performance Reviews During Probationary Periods

The next piece I would say is it's really important that we manage probation effectively. And for me, probation is up to 11 months. The more time you give to probation, the better. If somebody passes their probation early, fantastic. But a lot of the time, in most jobs, particularly now with remote working, it takes people that bit longer just to settle in, and that bit longer in terms of how it works.

So, for me, there's a huge need to make sure we're doing our one-week chat, "How are you getting on? How are you settling in?" as part of the probationary process.

Week 4, which is a month in, we're doing the first review. And this is, again, more along the lines of "How are you settling in? Any issues in relation to your training? Any gaps we can fast track and help you with?" So, again, this is the settling-in phase.

For me, then you possibly will do one in Month 2 now, but you will definitely be doing one in Month 3, because by Month 3, we should have a very good sense, "Caroline is on track. She's picking it up. She's doing well", or, "Caroline seems to be struggling for whatever reason." So Month 3, for me, there should be a definitive feedback in relation to, "We're on track", or, "Houston, we have problems that we really need to provide additional training, additional support, additional guidance".

And if at Month 3 we have concerns, then at that stage we need to put a plan in place as to how we meet you weekly after that to address those concerns. We don't want to wait and get to Month 4, 5, or 6 and you're still not on target.

And obviously, if somebody is on probation and they're not achieving the standard you would expect, at that stage you're outlining that clearly to them in the meeting, but you're also making sure you do the paper trail afterwards.

That paper trail is very much focussed at being crystal clear to say, "Look, Caroline, you're doing really well in relation to this, that, and the other. But we're very concerned because a fundamental element of the job was this technical skill we thought you had. You don't, and we're trying to upskill you, but we expect by the end of next month you will have this skill acquired because it's a core element of the job". And then you're able to go from there. There's no ambiguity.

During probation, even though you all know that the employee can't take an unfair dismissal case if they don't have more than 12 months' service, they can go down the road of the Industrial Relations Act, and also they can go down the road of equality to say, "Look, I feel I was unfairly treated while I was on probation. And that was to do with the fact that I was discriminated because of whatever," rather than it being job-specific. So what protects you in those cases is that paper trail.

There's lots of really good case law to show that if you do get feedback in the way I've outlined, and you do give the employee every opportunity to improve and you support them, then basically you're going to be covered if an employee takes a case.

And during probation, my motto is "fire fast, but fairly and legally". If somebody isn't good or achieving the required standard by Month 11, it's very unlikely that they will dramatically improve thereafter. I think if you're very focussed, like I've outlined there, by meeting the person regularly, I think you'll have a really good sense as to whether or not they should pass their probation. You can, of course, extend it, but once they go over 12 months, the unfair dismissal does apply.

The other thing I would say in relation to probation is you obviously come back to recruitment, and for me, it's all about making sure that we recruit the right fit for the job, and only when we recruit the right fit for the job at that stage are you going to facilitate that progress onto probation and job offer.

So spend time recruiting slowly, because I think in the current environment, we could easily fast-track it. For me, it's actually taking more time to recruit the right people rather than less that's really important.

Annual Performance Reviews

So the next area I want to talk to you about is the whole area of your annual review. I suppose that annual review, for me, there should be no surprises. It's part of the performance management process that's formally allocating time for that person's career and personal development and to give them really honest feedback to move them to the next level. We shouldn't be keeping a note of issues or concerns, etc., and waiting for the review to bring things up.

So, for me, the review should be no surprises. It should be really honest feedback. It should be uninterrupted time, and it should be based on the behaviours and competencies that I mentioned earlier on. So there will be culture and behaviours expected within the organisation around your core values, the competencies that are relevant to the job, and then the job-specific task. You're giving the person a holistic view.

Oftentimes, it's not the competence that becomes an issue with performance managing people. It's the behaviours, the attitudes, the interest, all of those, and non-job-specific criteria that I find generally are the things that cause most concern.

Obviously, I'm giving a very summarised version today because we've only the short webinar. But obviously, that whole piece that I've covered so far, which is probation and the reviews, we tell companies, "Tailor what your probation process looks like. What does your performance review process look like? What should be included? What values, competencies, title, form, etc.?"

Some organisations want a one-pager in terms of performance management because they don't do it very frequently and this to them is a big ask and they want to do it short and sweet, but comprehensive. And for some organisations, it's a six- and seven-page detailed competency-based framework. Some are obviously linked to pay and reward and performance-linked in that regard. And more aren't. So again, it's very much tailoring your performance management system to suit.

Remember, we started today talking about "What is your business structure? What is your business strategy for 2021 and beyond?" And for me, one of these strategic pillars is that performance management piece and aligning what your performance management strategy is to those core values and cascading it down then throughout the organisation.

Managing Absence

So the next area I'm going to touch on is the importance of managing absence. Often, we wrongly link absence and performance, and it's important that we ensure that a lot of people are absent because they're unwell, nothing to do with performance, which is a separate conversation in relation to managing absence of people to do with COVID, to do with having a disability, or an underlying health condition, etc. Today, we're focussing very much on managing performance to do with absence for those that it's linked to performance.

And you will find that a number of people may end up being absent because you start a performance management process with them, and as a result, they may go absent due to work-related stress.

For me, in that regard, it's important to engage with the person and send them an email and check in with them. Email should be the normal form of communication now with our team and our staff, even when they're not here, and it's good exercise to ensure that you have people's correct contact details for that purpose if you needed it.

For me, it's checking in on the person and it's acknowledging the fact that, "Look, Caroline, I know we started a performance improvement plan with you, and as a consequence, you've been absent from work. I know it's absence due to work-related stress. Be assured the performance improvement plan is designed to support you in the role to achieve the performance that's required, and we hope we can do anything we can to support your return back to the work environment".

For many, a performance improvement plan, which is the road we go down if somebody's performance isn't at the required standard and they've passed probation, it makes them feel, "Well, this is the first step on exit", which the opposite should be our ethos and approach.

For me, the performance improvement plan is saying, "Caroline, look, I'm not happy with the area of work", or, "I feel that that's an area of work you should be more competent and more developed in, in terms of your performance. But unfortunately, we aren't seeing that and now we want to put a performance improvement plan to support you to achieve that standard".

The more specific and smart and better we are in relation to that performance improvement plan . . . and by smart, I mean setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals . . . the clearer it is for the person to help them understand and support them in achieving that goal.

So, in terms of absence, other reasons people can go absent are if they're in the middle of a disciplinary or if they're in the middle of other performance-linked matters. For me, engagement early is important. The longer somebody stays out, the harder it becomes for them to return, especially because in their head, they're starting to worry in relation to that return. So it's important that we look at how we're going to engage people and help them come back.

I mentioned already somebody whose performance was accepted and maybe not addressed or tackled with them up to now. And for me, that's the drawing the line in the sand meeting, which is, "Look, Caroline, I've noticed that you can be quite sharp with me". Try and personalise it to something you've seen or something you've heard, etc. Say, "Look, that's not in keeping with our behaviours". Or somebody who's negative, the same. Some people are just negative and we nearly kind of just accept it as, "Well, that's just Caroline", or, "That's just Mary". So we need to start addressing people's behaviour.

If somebody has been allowed to have that standard of behaviour for a long period of time, they can feel that that's a really personal dig at them. So, again, we want to depersonalise it by objectively talking about, "Look, Caroline, you're brilliant in so many other ways, but this is the behavioural value in the organisation. We need somebody like you to be a hero of and to display, so it's really important to us".

Somebody like that, there are often linkages between that person going out on work-related stress because they feel that you're undervaluing them, etc. So those drawing-the-line-in-the-sand conversations can be quite challenging, but really important.

Using Occupational Personality Assessments

I suppose linked to that is dealing with difficult personalities, and when we're dealing with performance . . . I love doing OPQs. They're occupational personality assessments. For clients, we encourage them for our recruitment when they're down to the final few candidates and they can't decide. And we encourage it also for your management of your team. The great thing about an OPQ is it's like putting a mirror up to the person to say, "Your OPQ is telling me you've got the skills, you have these strengths, you have these areas for development, etc".

And the great thing about that is, from a performance perspective, you're trying to, again, objectify that. By knowing the person's personality style and you showing them, "Look, Caroline, your personality style is that you are sensitive to criticism. My job as your manager is to give you constructive criticism. I want to flag that I know this about your personality, so I want you to take it in the context it's intended". What it does is it helps you as a manager when you're giving feedback to your team in terms of how you might land that.

You'll see other people will be very resilient and that won't faze them. Obviously, the OPQ does a lot more than that specific area. It gives you insight into their natural personality style across their full personality range linked to their job and linked to work. So it does give you great insights.

Also, for me, in terms of dealing with difficult personalities, sometimes it makes us shy away from doing performance feedback and giving true feedback to individuals. For me, it should do the opposite, because if you have a difficult personality, that makes the team cohesion and all the other things more difficult so that we have to work on those behavioural areas.

Again, there's lots of training now available, and the beauty of it being done remotely means people aren't even travelling to it. So I would definitely say reviewing your strategy around training for performance management is really important.

And training your managers, number one, for me, is the most important thing. I really think we are doing managers a disservice if we're not training them in terms of how to give feedback and also how to manage people remotely.

And I mean the practical skills. For me, the devil is in the detail in that regard. And going through scenarios of "How do you handle this negative Moaning Minnie? How do you handle the situation where the person's been here a very long time and performance has never been challenged? How do you deal with somebody?" You're going through all the different scenarios so that you're proactively managing the situation. Again, as I say, role-playing by giving the managers confidence on how they will deal with those personalities and those issues.

It's important we adapt our style in terms of feedback to suit the personality types also. Some people need lots of reassurance and lots and lots of feedback, and the concept of "coach, don't tell" is even more important for some people within our team. But for others, they might need a different form of coaching and they might need it more frequently than somebody else who can work a lot more autonomously.

So I think we need to assess the different styles and really, I suppose, help our managers assess the styles within the team by doing tools like using OPQs, etc.

Trusting Performance Management Processes

I would say also trust the process. Some people would say to me, "Look, Caroline, I just want to make Johnny redundant because I don't want to go down the road of performance management". Remember, redundancy is a position. It's not linked to a person.

There are definitely a lot of claims that have been successful, the claim has won, because the person's performance hasn't been at the required standard. We attempted to tackle performance management, and then we decided we'd make the person redundant, and it's very evident that there was an underlying performance issue and it wasn't a genuine redundancy. It was linked to the performance of an individual.

So it's important that we trust the process of performance management, because most of the time, if you do this process well, fairly . . . Reasonable, remember, is the benchmark. What would a reasonable employer do, and what do we expect of a reasonable employee? We keep the paper trail throughout the process, and we give it due process. That's the obligation on us when we're doing performance management of anybody.

For me, oftentimes the reason performance management isn't successful is Johnny does something out of the way, our hair is on fire, and we focus on Johnny. Johnny ends up being brought in, performance improvement plan has been talked about, it's all really serious, and definitely his performance is being spotlighted. Well, then we forget about Johnny because we get on with the day job until the next major issue occurs. That's not performance management. That's firefighting.

So performance management means being consistent on a monthly basis to really make sure we're proactively managing somebody's performance by using the tools within the toolkit that we have. Like I mentioned, probation. Like I mentioned, the drawing-the-line-in-the-sand meeting. Like I mentioned, the "coach, not tell" and making sure that managers are performance managing their team to do their job at their pay grade rather than the manager themselves taking that work on and doing both their report's job and their own job, which means they are going to have issues with their own performance over time. So coaching them to do their own job rather than you taking it on.

Also, the concept of psychic management doesn't work and making sure that you give really clear feedback.

And finally, we spoke about the standard you set is the standard you get, and making really clear to the person what we expect in terms of behaviours, in terms of competencies, and in terms of job-specific smart goals.

Bullying v Performance Management

The last area I'm going to cover before we finish today, and I'll pass it to Rolanda for any questions we may have, is to consider the concept of bullying versus performance management.

A lot of managers would say to me, "Look, I'm afraid if I give Caroline feedback that will result in a bullying allegation being made. I'm stressed. I'm worried about that". So, for me, it's really important that we proactively performance manage our team and not be worried about that.

We have a very recent, hot-off-the-press code of conduct in this regard, which is just out, and it's really important that as HR practitioners, we familiarise ourselves with it and we update our policies and procedures to reflect it.

Also, the positive thing in it is that it highlights very clearly that performance management does not constitute bullying. And for us, that's making sure that we're giving our managers confidence that if they do it professionally and they focus on the performance and not the person . . . which is a skill that can be easily trained and we can give lots of tips to managers, whereas a lot of times managers personalise it to the person, and that's where we now cloud bullying and performance management.

So, for me, we need to give confidence to our managers to encourage them to performance manage their team both on a daily basis by coaching, not telling, by encouraging them to identify areas that they have gaps, and by considering the performance improvement plan. And the last case resort is then going down the whole area of the disciplinary in relation to performance management if the performance improvement plan fails.

What I find is if you're fair with the person . . . and fairness is our overarching aim in human resources, that we treat everybody with dignity and respect, we treat them professionally, and we treat them fairly. To me, we can achieve all of that in terms of anybody we're dealing with a performance issue by ensuring that we apply the concept of reasonableness, what is fair and reasonable; we apply the concept of due process and giving it the time it deserves and not expecting a quick fix; and also by ensuring that we maintain the paper trail so there are no surprises. Everybody is clear on what we discussed, what we've agreed, and what the plan is.

So that's a whistle-stop tour of the whole area of performance management. I tried to zone in on what are the most important areas. Each of them I could spend the rest of the day talking to you about. As I say, we run training in relation to all of these areas, so if you're interested in anything specific, just drop an email to

I suppose what I would say is our biggest challenge currently for employers is saying, "Look, I'm managing a team that are working remotely and they're trying to juggle life, home-schooling, etc." And our feedback to people is we've got to set realistic boundaries and realistic expectations. Expecting that that's not a problem for people is putting our head in the sand.

Instead, we need to collaboratively work with our team to say, "What do you need? How can I support you, and how can you still achieve what I need you to achieve? And how do we balance that so both of us are weathering this storm together?" rather than expecting that the person is at their desk full time when they're trying to home-school as well, which is not realistic to happen.

So I think flexibility, openness, collaborativeness, realism, and empathy, because we all know people will forget what you said, but they'll remember how you made them feel.

And we definitely have to work on building people's resilience. COVID, we have really seen a lot of people struggle, and particularly in this lockdown. We're all optimistic for the start of March, things starting to ease, etc., and spring has sprung. There's the brightness in the evenings and the flowers and all the good stuff starting to come. But I think we really need to make sure that we're supporting both our managers and our team in terms of managing the complexities and setting realistic expectations around that, because it's not normal and to expect normal is just not realistic.

Rolanda, I'll pass over to you for the last few minutes, just if you have any questions or if there's anything you want to do in terms of wrap-up. I'd be delighted to answer any questions as well.

Rolanda: Thanks, Caroline. Thank you very much for that. There are quite a few questions in there, and we won't get to them all, folks, but I can just answer couple of them directly myself. We will send you a link to the new bullying code in the follow-up email. We link to that in our website, so we'll send you a link to that.

A few people have also asked, Caroline, specific questions about OPQ. I'll send those details on to you directly and you can maybe go back to those people about the OPQ personality type.

Caroline: I'd be delighted.

Duration of Probationary Periods

Rolanda: Probation is a really popular area. In terms of our website, it's the area most frequently searched for as well. Unsurprisingly, we have a few questions about probation, Caroline. The first one being,

"How long do you think, perhaps in your contract, you should say the probationary period is for?"

Caroline: So I would always recommend 11 months. For me, if somebody passes their probation earlier, that's great. But oftentimes you find that if you put six months' probation into the contract, a lot of managers don't actually start the probation process until Month 5, and all of a sudden we're in Month 6. You absolutely can extend it, but extending it is sending a really big signal of "We're worried. We're concerned". Whereas if you have it until 11 months, you're giving plenty of time for the person to really assess that person in the role.

I think the settling-in period is taking a bit longer now because they don't, as I say, have the sitting by Nellie. They don't have the team engagement. It's not as easy to ask over the desk, "Listen, how do you do this again?" or, "Remind me how to access the system". So I think 11 months is definitely best from that perspective.

Rolanda: So, therefore, if your contract already says six months and you're extending it, you're extending it up to the 11 months basically.

Caroline: Exactly.

Tackling Historical Underperformance

Rolanda: You kind of mentioned this earlier, but we did have a question in before the webinar about where somebody is a new HR person or a new manager coming into an organisation where there's evidence of underperformance that's been going on for a while and in terms of how they deal with that. Would you recommend, I suppose, that they start maybe introducing a performance management policy maybe rather than just focussing on an individual or picking an individual out? What would you recommend?

Caroline: Really good point. For me, you're starting with the standard you set is really your starting point for me. And it's very hard when you're the new person coming in and you want to introduce all the positive things, which most people will see as positive, but then some will say, "Oh, God, this is going to negatively impact me".

I think it's all about doing the right things, and for me, one of the most important things is setting those core values. I think that's really important. And those core values are "What are the behaviours we expect from all of our team in keeping with our culture?" So positivity, honesty, integrity, transparency. You pick them to suit what works for you and your organisation.

Second of all, I would say there needs to be drawing-the-line-in-the-sand meeting with the person. You can't obviously bring up, "Listen, I've been told that there are 20 million things", to kind of got the ball rolling in that regard. So, instead, it's a case of, "Look, Caroline, you and I are just good to know each other, and let me explain to you what I expect". And then you outline what I am expecting. For me, that is that drawing-the-line-in-the-sand meeting. Rather than going back, you're setting the standard that you expect from now going forward.

I suppose I believe also that the best person to performance manage somebody is their direct line manager, and the HR person can support and coach and make sure the paperwork is in place, etc. For me, performance management is best when it is the line manager's responsibility, because they can continually give positive feedback in public on an on-going basis and constructive feedback in private. But they can do it on an on-going basis. Otherwise, it's a very sterile check in once a month, or whatever the case may be.

So I would say just start, and I think by starting, it just means to say, "Caroline, we'll check in again in a month". And even simple things like going to Caroline, "Look, Caroline, give me some examples of how you've displayed positivity, which is one of our core values". And often you'll find Caroline will have no examples because she hasn't been displaying that.

So there are ways and means to kind of start to set that standard and get the wheels in motion going. But I think my first piece of advice is go back to your core values. Make it easier for you to kind of have a benchmark that's objective. And then second of all, get the process rolling by starting at the first meeting.

Rolanda: Okay. Thanks, Caroline.

Managing Poor Performance During Lockdown

Good question then here now. I suppose a lot of employers might be dealing with this situation, where somebody is not performing. I presume, based on this question, they've been in the job for a while but they're not performing, and they're saying it's because of childcare issues and home-schooling and all of that balance. Can the employer go ahead with sort of implementing a performance improvement plan in these difficult times?

Caroline: So what I would suggest in that scenario is to agree, "Caroline, look, you're saying you're managing too many things. What's realistic for you to achieve? So, instead of working full-time five days, etc., give me what you feel is realistic, and let's see can I work with that on a temporary basis between now and mid-March or start of March when schools are going to be back".

And then we set, "This is what I expect from you now", and get agreement from the employee to say, "Okay, that seems realistic. I get these three projects done and that within the time constraints, that's a reasonable ask".

And then on the 5th of March, sit down and reassess. "Okay, was that achieved in that last month that we agreed?"

To me, it's about setting and re-contracting the agreement with the employee of what's realistic for them to achieve, get them to commit to it, and then retrospectively assess, "Have they achieved what I expected them to achieve to the standard of work in terms of quality and in terms of timeliness?"

And if you get that agreement up front, and you're taking into account all those other things, to me, once you've done a couple of those meetings, it's much easier then to say, "Caroline, I've worked with you. We've agreed the target. You haven't achieved it on two occasions. I'm now going down the road of performance improvement plan".

For me, the performance improvement plan should be short enough, but I think the longer you prolong it, the more challenging it is. I've seen some performance improvement plans and they're a year long, and that's really hard for all parties, the manager trying to manage the performance improvement plan and for the employee. So it needs to be fair, but it needs to be a reasonable amount of time to give the person the opportunity to improve. But not prolonged excessively for no good reason.

Duration of a Performance Improvement Plan

Rolanda: Okay. Thanks, Caroline. And in answering that question, you also answered another question, which was,

"How long should a performance improvement plan go on?"

Caroline: Oh, good.

Rolanda: Well done there, Caroline. There are a few other questions but we're not going to have time to get to all of them, folks, but thanks for sending them in. I will forward them on to Caroline.

Again, just to remind you about the HR Symposium coming up. We will send information in the follow-up email if you're interested in attending that. We've got great speakers coming. We've got a few lawyers from Eversheds to kind of do a mini employment law update. We have Caroline Hughes, Global Leadership and Talent Executive, and Mary Connaughton from the CIPD as well. So it's going to be a great event and you are very welcome to that.

Our next webinar with Caroline is on the 15th of March, and we'll be sending out information about what we're going to cover in that nearer the time.

But I just wanted to summarise the top tips that Caroline was talking about today. Obviously, training for managers and giving proper feedback is really important. Behavioural competency is a really helpful way of helping to articulate and identify when performance and behaviours aren't meeting the appropriate target. And I quite like this one, Caroline. Psychic performance management doesn't work. They're not mystics out there.

Caroline: So true. And so many people think it does.

Rolanda: Yeah. Weekly check-ins are quite important, and it's all about coaching, not telling.

Performance Review Proformas

And one wee last point. Sorry, I meant to ask this question I was thinking. Would you recommend that HR people draft simple little pro formas for managers to use when having those conversations so they can kind of tick off the main areas they want to look at, or does that make it a wee bit too robotic?

Caroline: I think, for me, the performance chats need to be tailored to suit the personalities. Because some managers have certain styles, and the person who's receiving the feedback have certain styles. So I prefer to tailor it to suit the style of the giver and the style of the receiver.

I think if you just give somebody a script, they're not going to deliver it if it's not in keeping with their style. And equally, the receiver will receive it maybe not as intended. So I think it warrants kind of helping managers to get the confidence in their own style but give them overall guidance. I think the best way to do it is to kind of help train them so it builds their confidence, because there's nothing like hearing it, seeing it, doing it, to develop that. Even today, we've covered loads of different scenarios. I think that builds confidence, doesn't it?

Rolanda: Yeah. Okay. Thank you very much. We'll be sending out a link to the recording of this if you had to leave early or you want to send on to someone else. You're more than welcome to do that. So, once again, Caroline, thank you so much for your time.

Caroline: A pleasure. Thanks, everybody.

Rolanda: Great to see you. Bye.


This article is correct at 04/02/2021

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Caroline Reidy
The HR Suite

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