Tag Archives: performance management

Who is to blame? Shoesmith an exception?

shutterstock_81310291The tax payer is about to pick up a mighty bill as the sorry saga of Sharon Shoesmith has ground its way through the courts.

Sharon Shoesmith’s story is just an extreme version of what goes on every day.

To summarise:

  • Under resourced/overstretched team
  • Impossible goals
  • Something goes wrong
  • Something must be done
  • Someone must go
  • Unfair Dismissal

This endless cycle (in small and large organisations) creates an outcry that unfair dismissal should be  abolished or eliminated  – another Something Must be Done.   Shortening the cycle by removing one step is an attractive option but it does not really deal with the fundamental problem.    So often we see organisations remove an individual for underperformance without making any changes to how the business/department is organised, managed, resourced, or run.

Guess what?

A few months or years later we are having the same conversation again about a new person!  ‘Lessons have been learned’ often translated into ‘heads have rolled’ and that’s the end of that.  The real cost to individuals, businesses and in this case the tax payer is very high.

Recruitment errors are not the same as supervision errors

We all recognise that sometime the wrong person is recruited and the only way to solve the problem is to get another person.   But there are some fabulous opportunities to improve our own managerial processes and to learn from when things go wrong.  One of the things we might decide to learn is that sometimes our goals are over ambitious in terms of our resources and we have to be realistic about what real people can achieve.

Frustration isn’t a plan

Reaching for excellence is a fabulous thing, but if you are frustrated by your team’s inability to reach it, then frustration can set in.   So many of us just repeat what we did before (saying it LOUDER) and are surprised that we get the same results (only LOUDER). Then we snap and we want to get rid of the person we feel is to blame.

It’s human.  It’s understandable.   It doesn’t really get anyone to where they want to be.  And it will trigger unfair dismissals.

There is a better way

It is possible to improve performance, but it takes time and thought and effort by the Boss.  Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by struggling with what is going wrong that we can’t even imagine finding the time and energy to create a better way to work.   The whole problem can seem too big to tackle.  The Boss ends up working till 3am to meet deadlines or redo sub standard work .

We see it all the time.  With a bit of support, a bit of clarity and the right arrangements between boss and staff we can all avoid a mini-Shoesmith.

We just need to have the conversations and do the thinking.  Employment law is just one of many reasons why you might not want to sack the person who seems to be to blame without going through any real process.  There are better  (and cheaper) ways to end your frustration than spending a large amount of your (or tax payer’s) money on unfair dismissal awards and legal fees.

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Filed under discipline and dismissal, employment law, performance management

Feedback or bullying – can we criticise our way to success?

shutterstock_29072275I am not a sensitive soul or an introvert.  Most of my life I have walked right up to people and told them where I thought they were going wrong.  Not a lot of those people are still speaking to me.  

I was taught to speak truth to power.

Somehow in that process I forgot that people don’t always have a strong sense of personal power, and there are times and places when this loud truth of mine is best left unsaid.   Those who loved me learned to duck, and everyone else walked away.

I am an extrovert, and I learn about things through talking about things.  The world of the introvert –who needs to walk away and think in private – was a closed book to me for most of my adult life.  They couldn’t get a word in edgeways, while I thought if it was important they would say something, interrupt me.

I still take up a lot of the oxygen in the room, but over time some patient souls have gentled me into looking beyond my intention (always good, of course) and into the havoc I occasionally create with my unsolicited and trenchant views.

I host a forum on LinkedIn, on bullying, harassment and discrimination in the UK looking at ways to prevent it, detect it and remedy it.   I have come to realise the connection between bullying and our managerial idea of performance feedback and communication.

This week I’ve been on the sidelines of several groups where conflict has broken out around public feedback and criticism.   Those who were giving the feedback and criticism were all acting from a standpoint of helpfulness and a desire to improve the outcome of a process.   All resulted in the criticism being received in an agitated or hostile way.

Online criticismIf criticism is well intentioned why would the person respond in such a hostile way?

1)    The intention behind the criticism does not affect whether performance itself improves as a result.  I used to think if I meant well, I did well – and the other person was to blame if it all went wrong (they had too much ego, couldn’t handle it, etc.).  It just doesn’t work.

2)    Unsolicited criticism rarely results in any change in performance – the most likely outcome is an argument or hurt feelings (amygdala hijack).   This method may stop someone doing something but is not likely to improve how they do it.  Walk up to the next ten people you meet and tell them how they could look better, eat better, earn more money, and see how many answers you get that don’t include   “…..off”!

3)    Public criticism is usually viewed by people who receive it as abusive and counter productive.  The public naming and shaming of people is normally regarded as a punishment and not a motivational or feedback tool.

When a group comes together for a common purpose, it is easy to assume that the same purpose is shared . . . and that our own method of achieving that purpose is naturally the right one.    That is rarely the case.

Inside an organisation, public criticism of an individual’s work can amount to bullying – with all the emotional and legal complications arising from that.  Work on the principle of public praise, private criticism (and you will have more colleagues who like you too).

Working in privateWhen we go online, we are in public.  The fact you can post to forums sitting on your sofa in your pyjamas can give a false sense of intimacy and privacy.  Try doing your social media more formally dressed to see if it changes your tone.

Criticism of all kinds abound on the online and offline world:

1)    Tactful – I wonder if you are trying to achieve….is that working?
2)    Direct – That needs improving
3)    Abrasive – That was a load of rubbish
4)    Abusive – You are an incompetent person
5)    Criminal – amounting to harassment and abuse that needs reporting

It is extremely rare anyone asks the question – What was the purpose of your actionWhat was the thinking behind it?    I wouldn’t walk up to you at a party and tell you I hated your outfit – not if I wanted you to talk to me.

You remember that guy at the party/networking event/meeting  you hated – the one who walked across the room and without even being asked told you what was wrong with the country today? (then kept at it for hours).  Remember how he changed your political views?  Your career choice?  The only thing he changed was your mood!

Online presence is not an invitation to be insulted – any more than going to a party is!   The wisdom of crowds does not come from shouting so loudly no one can think, but in sampling opinions and asking questions.   Reserve to yourself by all means the ‘right’ to be critical online but if  want the person to change how they are doing things – you should know – it is not likely to work.

We all need to raise the bar when it comes to our performance as bosses, managers, colleagues, friends, members of communities.   We can’t complain our way to paradise or criticise our way to success.

Our KoffeeKlatch intervention service around performance management is designed to get you moving, and to sort out where your business or your people are getting stuck.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050                  Fax: 08452 303060
You can follow Annabel on


Filed under bullying at work, performance management, social media

All that jazz about performance


Classical western music is a complex and rich tradition that relies on:

fixed scales and written compositions

 reproduced by performers who have practised for hours to produce a particular sound.

Large organisations often manage individual performance in a similar way:   

  • Each person is assigned an instrument and given a score to play.


  • The conductor’s/boss’s role is to ensure each player hits the right notes in the right way at the right time.jazz2 - conductor_Page_1 The  same piece is played in the same key every time. Variation is bad – we keep to the score the composer wrote.

Smaller organisations are more nimble:

Created by entrepreneurial bosses who were not happy to play the corporate/classical part they were given, the boss expects their team to know which instruments they are to play and what they should sound like.   Jazz musicians work in a similar way.

  • Each player knows the key the group will play in and knows the rules of jazz.
  • What the players don’t have is a fixed score or a fixed order to play the notes in.

To an outsider jazz can seem like a free for all where anything can happen.  To a jazz musician, jazz is an open system of fundamentals designed to allow the musicians to improvise without losing their way. Each performance is different and each musician changes the sound by the way they play. But it is always jazz.

jazz3Some people are solo artists. They cannot play with an orchestra or a group of jazz musicians. They can only do what they do their way. The group can accompany them as backing musicians and follow their lead, or the solo artist will not play. Many technical experts are solo artists at heart. They want their song played their way according to their definition of excellence.

A lot of the talk around performance management  in business ignores the fact there is no one-size-fits-all solution.   HR people act as if the classical tradition is the only one.

If you feel your organisation is a little more jazz than classical talk to us about creating contracts and handbooks that allow you to improvise around your fundamentals without pinning you down – click here.

If your organisation is full of soloists, you are probably employing lots of freelancers (or people who think they are) – click here.  If they really are your employees but still going their own way – talk to us about ways to bring them back to the fundamentals you require.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060
You can follow Annabel on Twitter


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Filed under contract, employment law, performance management

The past is no guide to future performance

Mary is an established member of her team, with good social and professional relationships with her co-workers.  Her boss has managed the unit with a fair degree of success (neither perfect nor imperfect), and everyone knows where the boundaries are and what is expected of them.

Boss moves on with fond farewells.  New boss Sarah arrives, with her own way of doing things.  Mary feels put out by the changes, and wants to carry on working as before.    She complains to colleagues about the changes, and starts to campaign with them that they should not implement them.     She tells her colleagues that many of the changes are pointless and will not work, and she will not participate in them.   When a colleague tells her “Sarah’s the boss, why not just do what she says?”  Mary turns on her heel and laughs.  Although Mary is a valued member of the team, her campaigning is making life very difficult for her new boss.  The team is dividing into ‘pro Sarah’ and ‘pro Mary’ camps.  Mary talks about “I was here first”, and “it worked well before”

Sarah was a very popular boss with her old team, and she is well liked by some of the new team.  She is very approachable, regularly buys drinks for everyone in the pub, and is willing to bend the rules to help her team members, letting them go home early if needed.    Standards are slipping a bit – the old boss was a stickler for detail, whereas Sarah is more of an overview person.   No-one from outside would notice the difference, but old team members shrug their shoulders and pick up the slack.  Sarah doesn’t seem to know.

Why is it we are so bad at change?

Planning for change, or accepting changes that are not planned, is something few us are willing or able to do.

Sarah went into a new team without a clear plan for how she would evaluate whether change was needed, communicate that change, implement it, and monitor it.  She just did what worked well in her old team.

Mary did not expect any change except for the name of her boss.   When faced with change she resisted it all.

If the team is lucky there will be a natural mediator on the team – one of those wonderful people who are the glue that really make the workplace work.    We need someone to say to Mary: “The boss is the boss.  Unless it is dangerous, or illegal, it is her job to say what we do.  If you think it is inefficient or there are better ways, have a quiet word with her and let her know, otherwise you need to do it.”   And we need someone to feedback to Sarah that she is changing how things are done (she may not be aware of it), and that she needs a process for bringing people along with her and for dealing with Mary.

How many HR specialists does it take to change a light bulb?

That depends on whether you want to keep the light bulb.

Sarah could have a useful learning experience that will enhance her skills and make her next promotion easier, or she could struggle with Mary and slowly begin to fail – she could get stuck here.  Mary may even accuse her of bullying, as Sarah repeats the same instructions over and over again and Mary gets progressively more isolated from her team.

Mary can learn how to handle change and difficult situations.  Or she can campaign against her boss, and sooner or later she will find herself with no promotion prospects, and quite possibly no job.   Mary can feel bitter that her lovely job was ‘stolen’ from her by this awful manager – an attitude that may affect her life at home as well as at work.

It’s not a big deal to help new managers put together a system of ‘raising the bar’ so that they can change the way a team works.   It’s not such a big deal to help Mary (at an early stage) to work out the difference between changes she needs to give feedback on, and those that are not really something to worry about.

So where were HR when all this was happening?   They were busy with other important things.  They had not routinely touched base to see how this team functioned.  Of course, when Mary claimed she was being bullied, and Sarah claimed she was totally unsupported by management, HR were all over the investigations like a rash.  The hours of note taking and decision making meant they were then too busy to touch base with any of their other teams.

Is there a happy ending to this tale?  Not really:  Mary spent years resenting Sarah, and then transferred to another team.  She is not regarded as a popular or successful team member, because she has kept up the habit of complaining about the boss and resisting all change.  Sarah never got another promotion in the organisation.  She stayed in post for a few years and then got a job outside.  She started with her new team in the same way, and is now convinced that people are just awkward and you have to push them harder to get what you want.   HR are still doing a lot of paperwork and taking a lot of notes at meetings with unhappy people.  No change there then.

Employment law is where the rubber meets the road – where people problems become legal problems and the law intervenes.  It can’t make Sarah a better manager, or Mary a more realistic employee.  It can’t make an organisation introduce the small interventions that prevent this type of problem  What employment law does do is penalise and sanction those organisations who get to tribunal after they haven’t done their part and a legal issue has arisen.

Of course if there are any ‘equality’ or ‘discrimination’ issues here, this turns into a nightmare scenario.  Sarah picked on me because I am white, transsexual…..  Even in unfair dismissal terms, the process of performance management can be a very long haul if it is started late and from an already-broken situation.

If there were no employment law and the organisation was free to act in any way, would that really solve this problem?  To what extent is the very existence of employment law the problem?

To my thinking, employment law, if incorrectly applied, can be a complicating factor, but it’s never the problem itself.   Giving long serving employees three warnings and an opportunity to change their behaviour doesn’t seem unreasonable.   In this situation would you really want to walk in and just sack Sarah or Mary (or both)?

There is another complicating factor:  in many organisations, both performance management programmes and warnings are often seen as the death knell for individuals – simply the start of an inevitable process of ‘managing someone out of the business’.  We need to do something to change that – but that’s not an employment law issue, it’s a cultural one.

It’s not employment law that gives us difficult problems.  The Sarah/Mary problem is one we get every day, and it has a relatively easy prevention plan, early on.  But allow it to fester to the point when employment law becomes an issue, and then you are in for a more painful remedy.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060
Website:  www.irenicon.co.uk
You can follow Annabel on Twitter

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Filed under bullying at work, discrimination, employment law, performance management

Employment law does not prevent performance management

If I had a penny for every time a manager told me that employment law prevented them from managing their staff, I would be so rich I wouldn’t need to work.

Most of the problems we deal with on our hotline stem from a failure to properly manage performance.  Whether it is ‘bullying’ or problems in managing maternity leave, selection for redundancy, even half the discrimination problems we get – they all stem from a failure to:

  • Design jobs people can succeed in
  • Recruit people with the right skills
  • Set achievable goals within that job
  • Adequately resource for success
  • Monitor performance and feedback
  • Adjust course where needed

When we talk to employees within teams we find them saying – management won’t touch x person because they are protected by discrimination law, management don’t tackle poor performance early enough or clearly enough.

The managers say employment law stops them doing this.

Employment law is not that tricky if you know what you are doing.  Some organisations are cursed with the ‘employee from hell’ but most are not.   You don’t have to wait until you can’t stand it any more and then try to shoe horn ‘employment law’ into a last minute dash towards dismissal (with the replacement waiting in the wings).  You can integrate the basics into a simple performance management system.

If you are struggling with manage your team (or an individual)  and thinking “if employment law didn’t exist I’d…………….”  now is the perfect time to start working on that problem.

Employment law is not going to stop you managing poor performance in your business if you know what you are doing.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy. Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060 Website : www.irenicon.co.uk. You can follow Annabel on twitter – http://twitter.com/AnnabelKaye


Filed under employment law, performance management

Profit Improvement and People

I went to a fascinating talk yesterday on improving profit. The Speaker Robert Craven was very clear, very focussed and practical.

He spoke about how simply reducing the cost base, or discounting to get more business will not generate more profit of itself. One element of his talk was about improving the performance of or removing individuals who fail to perform. Too true.

Yet many businesses hesitate when faced with this moment. They know ‘Joe’ is really not doing what needs to be done or ‘Jane’ is marking time and not making a real contribution. Hedged about with instructions and processes from a real of imaginary ‘HR’ department a boss’s heart is bound to sink when faced with taking action.

People and processes do matter in a business but the truth is:

    If you allow underperformers to draw money and resource from your business you will reduce customer satisfaction, staff satisfaction AND profitability for as long as you do it.

  • If the problem is that your jobs are wrongly designed so no-one can succeed, or under-resourced for the task, you can tackle that.
  • If the problem is your people don’t know what you want them to do , you can tackle that.
  • If the problem is your people aren’t properly skilled to do what is needed, you can tackle that.

But there will always be a few where this is no ‘magic cure’ or even an ordinary one. Most of us have made mistakes in recruiting people; people we hoped would help us grow our business who turned out to do nothing, or worse still, harm. Have you ever had one of these?

If you walked into work today and your staff were giving £50 notes to each of your customers and asking them to go to a rival, you wouldn’t tolerate it for a moment. Yet often as not businesses have individual staff members in them who are effectively doing that very thing.

You know you are not the perfect leader or boss – though you are doing your best, but somehow you put off tackling this – the ‘dark side of HR’ . You patiently fill in the gaps yourself and work longer hours, or hire other people to do what this person should be doing. You sense it is not the right solution but somehow it seems the only practical one as you dread complex processes and procedures.

Talk to us. We have a great ‘try before you buy’ offer. Let’s see what we can do for you by listening to you for 20 minutes.

Our approach is both profoundly commercial and practical, whilst respecting the sensibilities of your organisation and teams. You’d be surprised how quickly some of the things you are worrying about this weekend can turn into problems in the past. You could save yourself a lot of time and energy if you let us help you tackle this problem. Our service is confidential, discreet and focussed on your business and commercial needs. For 30 years we have been working behind the scenes to solve these problems.

Tel: 08452 303050, www.irenicon.co.uk. advice@irenicon.co.uk





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Injured and still dancing?

Not everyone who comes to the dance floor is fit enough to dance all the steps.  Sometimes we are aware of our limitations beforehand.  Other times, we have no idea until we try to make a move and find we simply cannot.

Our mood and level of tension can affect our range of flexibility and options.  When I am relaxed, I can reach far further than when I am tense and anxious.

A good  leader will start by finding out how their follower is right now.   If the follower has had a ‘bad day at the office’ and the leader starts the first dance by initiating complex dynamic moves without any warm-up or introduction, the follower may find it impossible to relax and follow.

A good leader starts by relaxing themselves, then relaxing their follower and finding out what their follower’s capability is.  They then offer a lead within those possibilities.  As the follower gains confidence, the leader slowly expands the range of steps they are leading.

If the leader wants to dance more complicated steps, they must pick out a follower who is capable of matching them.  To demand too much of the follower is to invite distress, even  injury.

This responsiveness to the state of the follower is something leaders take a long time to learn.  Beginner leaders on the dance floor are barely able to control where they put their own feet, never mind worry about how their follower might be feeling.

But tango is an improvised dance form, so there is no need to take one particular set of steps, at any particular time, instead of another.

Back to the world of work . . . . The Government changed sick notes into ‘fitness notes’.  This is an invitation for employers to find out how their ‘followers’ are, and adjust the demands made upon them to take account of their health.

Many organisation are currently unable to improvise when it comes to fitness at work.  Hamstrung by decades of bureaucracy, the ‘management of sickness’ is mostly confined to the collection of statistics (rarely used) and the occasional dismissal or warning.

The ‘welfare’ issues of health and safety are detached from attendance, while customer care, performance management and other benchmark issues are not integrated in any way. We live in a world where most people are viewed as either ‘fit to work’ or ‘off sick’, with no understanding of the various in between states where we all fluctuate.

The disabled have a special legal license via their adjustments to be ‘half fit for work’ (not always honoured), but the rest of us are expected to dance our working dance regardless of how we feel, unless we are so ill as to be unable to attend work.

There is more room within the music of ‘achievement’ and ‘objectives’ than many managers realise.  Sometimes it is necessary to pause, just as in tango, to make time and space for the faster moves that will follow .

Our followers can recover their balance and poise (if they have lost it), and we can reconnect with each other and the music before moving on.

Will any organisation in the UK use fitness notes to create the possibility of greater achievement?

Or is everyone going to look at this as another malingerer’s charter, another piece of ‘red tape’ that handicaps the boss?

If every leader danced with every follower as if the follower were deliberately withholding their best from the dance floor, the act of dancing would become a monstrous thing of tyranny.

If every follower stepped on to the dance floor knowing that however bad they felt, they had no option but to do what they were led by someone with no idea of how they were – would they do it?

If we treated our best dancers as if their off days (and yes, they have them) were a deliberate insult to the world of dance, how long would it be before they went somewhere else?

And if we made them get a note from their mother or their GP to say they had a stiff back today before we changed our lead to accommodate that – would they ever dance with us again?

We live in peculiar times where the ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ mistrust each other in the dance of work.  The dance seems hard, the resistance seems great, and few are in harmony with the music.

Let’s take a moment, a little balanceo as they say in tango, and discover who we really are and who is able for what.

Let’s take a moment for fitness – without a note! As on the dance floor so in life …….

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.   Tel: 08452 303050  Fax: 08452 303060  Website : www.irenicon.co.uk.  You can follow Annabel on twitter – http://twitter.com/AnnabelKaye

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Filed under employment law, performance management, sickness