Employment Today - February 2000                                          back to articles menu

The Dreaded Review – Part III

(Part I - September issue, page 3. Part II - October issue, page 36)

Remember our friend Nick, who hated doing Performance Reviews, and his CEO who was trying to convert him? She reminded him that he got his results through his team, and that regular Performance Review – both informal and formal – was an essential part of the management of his teams’ performance, and therefore an essential part of his job. It became clear that he hated them because he didn’t know how to do them, had not been trained, and his own personal experience had been negative. She gave him five questions (Sept issue, inset table, page 3) to give to his team a week before the Reviews were scheduled, then in Part II (October issue, table on page 36) she laid out all the issues to do with preparation for the Review Meeting itself. We pick up the story again with Nick having another 'training session' with his CEO.

"OK Nick, last time we met you were going to do the first of your Review Meetings, and then we were going to do a debrief. So how did it go?" asked the CEO. "I decided not to do one until we'd done this session", said Nick, "it seemed to me that each of them deserves the best standard from me and it didn't seem fair to experiment on one person".

"Good move!" said the CEO. "I can see you've been thinking... Now, I'd like to concentrate on two key issues central to the content and conduct of the meeting itself. The first is SMART goal setting, and the second is Win-Win negotiation.

"I've heard of Win-Win negotiation, but what's SMART goal setting all about?" Nick asked. The CEO reached over and pulled a pad off her desk, writing the letters SMART in a vertical line. "The letters S. M. A. R. T. relate to a model we use to ensure that goal setting is done thoroughly - and the same model can be used for either performance improvement or disciplinary", she said. "But I want to make one thing clear before we start. You need to draw a clear distinction between a Performance Review meeting, and a meeting that is called to discuss a Disciplinary issue.Those two things require very different treatment, but it is all too tempting for some managers to issue Warnings when a Performance Review meeting gets out of hand. I know it sounds a bit pedantic but if you find yourself in a position in a review meeting where you feel like issuing a Warning, you need to stop the meeting, advise the person that you are going to call a disciplinary meeting at which a Warning might be issued, go and check your facts, then have your Disciplinary meeting. You can always return to the Performance Review meeting the next day." 

Nick looked perplexed."You mean you really have to go that far? Seems a bit over the top to me. I mean, if you've already got them in front of you, why not do it at the same time?" he said."Put yourself in the other persons shoes for minute", the CEO said."If you knew that you were being called to a Disciplinary meeting at which a Warning might be issued, and you had a staff representative or union delegate on-site, wouldn't you like the opportunity to have a chat with them first, and probably have them present at the meeting?"

Nick smiled. "When you put it like that, I suppose so. You don't really think about things like that do you - I guess it follows a 'no surprises' philosophy", he said. 

"Let's go through the model in its performance review mode, and then we'll do one for a simple Disciplinary issue", said the CEO."Then you'll get to see how the model works in each case.Imagine you're in a Performance Review meeting with an accounts payable clerk. Let's say that his accuracy in terms of GST calculations is not very good and sometimes the amount showing on the cheques he generates doesn't match the invoice that he's paying. Let's also presume that he has been fully trained, has been doing the job for some time, and the equipment he is using is fault-free (obviously you would want to check those elements in real life before addressing the issue as a problem for the employee).

The letter 'S' is for 'Specific':

Specifically what is the performance shortfall?We have to get away from 'fuzzy' expressions like 'sloppy', 'negligent', and 'casual'.What to those words mean? Ask 10 people and you will get 10 different interpretations. In this case the specific problem that needs addressing is one of inaccuracy - and you will need to be able to produce examples of the inaccuracies. Actual cheques with errors and their associated invoices, which show the errors in an indisputable way, and spreadsheets with incorrect GST calculations are the obvious examples.You need to establish that these errors are a result of his work output and that there are no other contributing factors."

"It's starting to sound like a criminal investigation!" said Nick. The CEO laughed. "Well in a very small way, I suppose it is.It's all in the way you do it - what you are attempting to do is establish facts, make sure that you treat the employee fairly and focus on the actual performance issues, and nothing else.You're looking for clues to a solution - not a witch-hunt. In order to do that you have to make sure (and the employee has to accept) that it is the employee's shortfall, and that although you are there to help and support, it is their responsibility to fix the problem. As an example, you might use words like: 'Mike, we need to discuss a couple of problem areas. Specifically, cheques are being generated that don't match the invoice value, and some of the monthly reports are a showing incorrect GST calculations, which we have tracked back to some of the spreadsheets that you prepare. I've got some examples of these, so let's look at them together and see what's causing the problem and how we can fix it."

"But what if he blames the computer system, or too many interruptions, or work overload?" Nick asked.

"Let me go through the model and you'll see how those objections can be dealt with.

The letter 'M' stands for Measurable. It reminds you to think about and agree with the employee how you are measuring their performance.In the example we're using, it's easy.The cheques and the invoices and the spreadsheets are all tangible, visible samples of that persons work.And they are factual, rather than feelings or emotions. Whatever the measurement method, you both need to agree on it and you've got to stick to it.It's not fair to agree to measure accuracy in the meeting, and then later criticise the employee for slow work. You should have agreed to a mixture of accuracy and speed as the measurement, at the meeting.

"The letter 'A' stands for two things: Achievable, and Agreed. Whether a given task or goal is achievable needs to be determined and agreed by both parties.To determine whether something is achievable you can try some simple tests.Have other employees in the same role achieved 100 percent accuracy, or the accuracy target that you are looking for?If you were to do this employee's task, could you achieve the accuracy that you are asking for?Has the person been trained?Is the equipment performing as it should? If the answer to one or more of these questions is 'No', then is this target or goal achievable under the current circumstances?If the employee does not agree for any reason that the target or goal is achievable then they will probably not achieve it.If you carry on regardless, then you are going to have problems later if you try to move to disciplinary action for non-performance."

Nick frowned."So what I'm hearing is that the employee simply has to 'not agree' that the target is achievable and they are off the hook?"

"I know this sounds a bit negative", said the CEO, "but with a difficult employee you can adopt a process of 'removing excuses'. A friend of mine once described it as a process of working together to close each door marked 'excuse', so that in the end the employee is confronted with only one open door remaining, marked 'my problem' - if that is in fact the reality.In the example we're using you would need to deal with the possible excuses one-by-one by asking such questions as 'have you had sufficient training?' followed closely by 'what training could we give that would solve this problem?' If the employee cites work pressure, then you will need to present your evidence that this is not the case, or alternatively agree to investigate whether this is so. I would hope that you had already considered this and established the reality.

"The letter 'R' stands for 'Realistic'. Depending on workload, current level of competency, the equipment the employee uses, the hours available for the job - is what you are asking the employee to do actually realistic within those constraints? Could you do the job? Have other employees been able to do it?You might wonder what the difference is between Achievable and Realistic.For me personally, climbing Mount Everest is certainly Achievable - I have two arms and two legs, and I can move - but in terms of the time and effort required in training for physical fitness and the mountaineering skills required, not to mention the financial cost of completing the project, it's just not Realistic.Now for the last letter...

"The 'T' stands for 'Timed'. You both need to agree a defined time by which a performance improvement goal will be reached and/or waypoints at which progress will be reviewed.You need to be careful that the time set for completion is not only agreed by the employee, but would also be seen by an impartial person to be achievable and realistic.This may sound a little surprising, but it has not been unknown in the past for a manager to convince an unsuspecting employee that a goal is reachable within a specified time frame which the manager is fully aware is too short, and for the manager then to use subsequent non-performance as a reason for dismissal. 'Downsizing by deceit', if you like, but in the event of a Personal Grievance, the employee's Advocate and the Tribunal are not so 'unsuspecting'. Once you've established your timeframe, then you must stick to it, or renegotiate it if circumstances mean that becomes appropriate. Don't just forget about timeframes - employees will take their lead from you. If you are casual about it, then so will they be.

"OK, I think I've got all that", said Nick. "I might have to write the letters SMART on my desk pad to remind me - and it's good to have a model to help you through. You said this works for Disciplinary too?"

"Exactly the same model, but with some variations", said the CEO. "Let's use an example of an employee developing a pattern of lateness. Firstly, there's a difference between a casual, informal comment 'I see you were 20 minutes late this morning - I'd like you to arrive on time from now on' and a worsening situation where informal methods have failed. When you decide to make it formal, you will need actual records of lateness. Time clocks are wonderful things, but in their absence, Manager or Team Leader observation is sufficient. Once you have your actual evidence, and not before, you can call your meeting, making sure the employee knows that this is a formal meeting on a Disciplinary issue (specifically lateness), and that a Warning may result from it. Give them time to think about it and see their representative if they wish. You might even suggest they do that, and record the fact that you suggested it...

"Once you are in the meeting, the SMART model comes into play. Specifically, the employee has developed a pattern of lateness, being late on (these) specific days and arriving at work at approximately (these) times. Specifically, their actual start time is (whatever). If the excuse or explanation is not valid, you can goal-set using SMART. Here's how it might go...


"I require you to be at your workstation ready to commence work at your contracted start time of 0830. That does not mean driving in the drive at 0830, or being in the cafeteria at 0830, it means being at your workstation at 0830."


"Since we don't use a time clock, for the next three weeks your Team Leader will check every morning that you are at your workstation at 0830."


"I accept that your brother's car is unreliable and that he has been bringing you to work. However, we are on a bus-route, the buses are running, and in any case it is your responsibility to get to work." (The AGREED part is not necessary here - unless they want to renegotiate their contract, at the moment they are in breach of an existing agreement - something that should be emphasised. Employment Contracts are two-way...)


Unless civil war has broken out or Rangitoto has erupted, it is Realistic to expect employees to arrive punctually at work. Car accidents etc are unusual and hopefully not a 'pattern'!


Unlike performance shortfalls or quality issues, you don't need Training to arrive at work on time. "Starting from tomorrow and continuing for every normal working day you are in my employ. We will review your punctuality in three weeks."

We do need to add something extra in a Disciplinary issue like this:


"Because you didn't seem to understand the importance of punctuality before this meeting, I have decided not to issue a First Warning at this point; instead the substance of this meeting will be entered on your personal file. Now that you do understand the importance of it, further incidences of lateness without a valid reason will result in a First Warning. Just in case you're not aware, the process we use here is made up of a First Warning, followed by a Final Warning, followed by Termination of employment."

"So you see, Nick, the model will work for any kind of goal setting activity, and that includes Disciplinary, since Disciplinary Action has the goal of changed behaviour.Following the model will help ensure that you stick to a process, and there is less likelihood of forgetting important parts of that process."

"I really appreciate you going through all this with me" said Nick. "It's taken a lot of the worry away. I really didn't realise just how important the Review process is, what the consequences can be if we ignore it and what the gains can be if we use it properly. But Hey - what about Win-Win Negotiation?"

You guessed it folks. You'll have to wait until March issue - we'll show you a nightmare 'How Not To Do It' and deal with Win-Win Negotiation. Happy Reviewing!

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email: steve@sta.co.nz
Steve Punter 2000 All rights reserved by the author

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