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Nip it in the Bud - Dealing with Poor Work Performance


by Caroline Cooper, September 21, 2010

I remember in my early days of management someone relating discipline to a red hot poker. If you touch a red hot poker you know you will get burnt. The harder you touch it the more it will burn. The poker does not discriminate; anyone who touches it gets burnt. It burns straight away so conditions you not to keep touching it.

Discipline should be no different.

Last week I listened to a feature on the radio talking about driving offences and whether or not people should lose their licences even if they are dependent on their car for their job. In the UK we have a points system that states that when you reach 12 points on your licence you should be banned from driving until the offences have lapsed. 

Why have the system if some magistrates then let people off the hook and allow them to continue to drive and re offend. If you've been caught driving on the motorway using your mobile phone why is someone who drives for a living any less likely to be a risk to others than someone who doesn't? To be caught a second or third time should come as no surprise to lose your licence and maybe your job. So soapbox rant overÖ

But is this any different from the way you treat people who break the rules at work?

Rules may be set by legislation, the business, the individual site or department or there may be the unwritten 'rules', standards or guidelines set by the individual team or line manager. Whoever has set the 'rules' needs to ensure they are not only communicated, but check they are measurable and people understand why they are important. Any rules or standards laid down that you have difficulty explaining begs the question are they necessary? (OK, there may be some legislation we find difficult to explain at times, but any internal rules with no value should be reviewed and updated or binned).

Failure to do anything about it sends the message to everyone else that it's OK to break the rule. We sometimes misguidedly believe that it's a one off or the problem will go away; but before you know it the problem has escalated - either the person in question continues to disregard the rule or standard, or it becomes custom and practice for everyone to follow suit.

So nip it in the bud and address it straight away. This does not mean giving everyone a lecture in a group meeting - all this does it makes the 'non offenders' irritated that they are all being 'accused', whilst those to whom you are aiming your comments either just laugh it off, or it goes by without them realising you are referring to them.

Of course every business should have its own disciplinary process, and I am not going to go into that here. But irrespective of the seriousness of the problem - whether it's someone being late, not greeting a customer in the way you'd expect, breaking health and safety rules, failure to carry out part of their job, arguing with another member of staff, or doing something in a haphazard way with a poor result - there are three phases to dealing with poor performance.  Your goal is to resolve the issue and improve performance in future.

Explore the Gap

What is it they have done or failed to do? How does this compare with the standard or rules? What is the impact (actual or potential) of their actions? We should be focusing on actual behaviours - what we have seen or heard first hand. 

It's very easy to haul someone into the office to take them up on something you've been told by someone else, only to have them deny their actions. So gather facts (opposed to hearsay, and others' perceptions and opinions). Be prepared to give specific examples, the more recent the better - so donít start dragging up something they did or said two months ago. 

Avoid making judgments about their attitude or personality e.g. "I donít like your attitude", or "you are very arrogant".  What have you seen or heard them do that has led you to that conclusion? Is there a genuine shortfall in standards of performance?

By focusing on their actions and behaviours you are less likely to get a defensive response and it is easier for people to identify what they need to change.

Examine the reasons for the gap

The only way to do this is to get the employee to talk the situation through by asking open-ended questions, and by listening. 

There may be a number of legitimate reasons why someone has not performed to standard.  Lack of resources, time pressures, insufficient training, bottlenecks in the system, mixed messages in terms of expectations, for example. (See my earlier article "Bad workmen or poor tools?").

Everyone has a right to a fair hearing. However do be prepared for the excuses - "well Fred does it all the time and gets away with it", or "I donít see why that's a problem", "No one's ever told me that I had to do that". Is this a genuine disciplinary problem or an indication that help is required? These last two responses suggest that some more explanation or training is needed, and you may need to draw a line in the sand and set out your expectations for the future. 

Also consider if the problem is down to relationships, to get attention, a grievance, or a clash of personalities. 

Only by really understanding the reasons are we in a position to turn the situation around or prevent a reoccurrence.

Eliminate the gap

We said that the goal is to improve performance or prevent this happening again. This requires buy in and commitment from the other person. In order to change, there needs to be some incentive. The fear of the disciplinary process may be enough, but it is hardly motivating! Nor is it any guarantee of a change in behaviour. 

By understanding the reasons leads us the come up with options, and to gain buy in we need to ask the employee for their ideas on how to improve. Sometimes a simple "donít do it again" is all that is needed, but it may not be as simple as this. 

For example if the issue is poor timekeeping, but the reason is there is no bus that gets them into work in time for the start of their shift, the problem wont just go away - can we change their shift times? Is there someone who passes who could give them a lift? Or they may be a carer or their partner / child is ill and cannot leave home until the nurse or help arrives.

Of course the problem may be down to a flagrant disregard of the rules, in which case you must first help the employee to understand the impact of their behaviour.  Homing in on the effect it has on his or her team mates, of the impact on guests, or the business may not be enough to get buy in. Focus on something that is important to this individual employee. An example might be making their job easier, being able to finish their shift on time, getting cooperation from their team mates, the opportunity to be considered for other roles, etc. The conversation needs to be tailored to suit the individual's motivators.

Agree on an improvement plan.  This will involve gaining their commitment to improve, and may require some help from you or other members of the team.  Then agree how and when it will be monitored, as well as any consequences if there is no improvement. 

Finally show your support and encouragement. If you suggest or imply they can't or won't improve it generally becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Managing poor performance is one of the topics being covered in Caroline's new online leadership coaching programme Leading for Peak Performance which is being launched in late September. 



 
Caroline Cooper is a business coach with over 25 years in business and management development. She is the founder of Zeal Coaching, specialising in working with hospitality businesses, and is author of the 'Hotel Success Handbook' For more information on Zeal Coaching see http://www.zealcoaching.com/
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Contact: 

 Caroline Cooper 
Zeal Coaching 
tel:  +44 (0)7887 540914
caroline@zealcoaching.com
www.zealcoaching.com

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Also See: The Hospitality Industry and Some of the Personnel Challenges it Faces! / Fritz Kummer / August 2010
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