Raising StandardsThursday, March 8th, 2012
No, not raising the corporate banner for warfare, but to put an end to unsatisfactory behaviour or performance in the workplace. You know the scenario – standards slip bit by bit, then one day the boss goes berserk, reads the Riot Act, and things improve a little for a short while before dropping again to their previous low standard. Well, this just won’t do. You need to raise standards and keep them permanently at a satisfactory level.
The first thing of course is to have a decent set of standards and publish them in the form of handbooks, notices or employment contracts. Explain them as part of induction training and test the employees to ensure that they understand. If you have new employees whose home language is not English, or who have some form of learning difficulty, or are just slow in picking things up, have someone help them and give them time to learn.
Also you really must give training to every member of staff who has responsibility for the performance and behaviour of employees. Discuss the rules with them. Giver them ample opportunity to point out where rules are inadequate or unnecessary, where they have difficulty with rules, and how best to enforce them. Make clear that they are not set in stone but need to reflect current needs and that therefore, if they as managers feel that a rule needs changing, they need to register that fact. Make them feel that they own the rule book. Having done that give every manager at every level training in how to deal with employees who transgress or lower their standards, and how to manage the discipline process competently and lawfully.
Not only should managers feel that they own the rule book, they should be encouraged to demonstrate that to their employees. This is a critical stage of making the first stage of the discipline process work. Not the formal warning, nor the informal warning, but the word in the ear, the point at which discipline is most effective. Insist that managers show ownership at the very least by not saying that an employee must not do something “because it is in the rules” or “because the boss will not like it”. Encourage them to be quite arrogant by saying “I will not have that behaviour in my section” or “I will not put up with performance like that; I need you to get better results”. Phrases like these personalise the standards to the manager and, strangely perhaps, strengthen the bond between manager and employee. The employee feels that he is working for the manager rather than a distant board of directors and if he fails to perform, he is letting down someone close to him or her. This technique is amazingly effective.
Managers will need training in this – not just a half-hour pep talk but a few role plays. And senior managers need to be present to assure and demonstrate to participants that they will be supported in any discipline action provided they carry it out properly. Having done that, discipline management is an item that should be included in managers’ performance appraisals.
If you yourself feel that a standard in your section needs to be improved, do not adopt a common practice of having a word in the ear of the first two employees who, say, sneak off work five minutes early, and then give a dramatic final warning to the third. Certainly if you dismissed the third person you would be found to have done so unfairly because you would have led your employees to understand that, if they leave early, they will receive a quiet word in the ear. In this example, get your team together and tell them that you are not prepared to allow people to sneak off early. If they need to leave early, they should ask for permission. You have already warned two people but are now making clear that if you find anyone else leaving early without permission you will take strong discipline action against them. Your people now understand, and from now on you can take firm action.
Establishing standards of behaviour is quite straightforward – you set standards that, to most people, seem reasonable. But raising performance standards can be a little more tricky. If they are set out in the contract of employment, for example “you are required to achieve sales of £x” or “you must make at least y calls per month” and there is no provision for changing these targets, then changing them without the clear agreement of the employee would amount to breach of contract. In this case you would need to explain to the employee concerned the reason for wanting the change and try to persuade him or her to accept it. If the employee refuses you can end the current contract and offer a new one embracing the changes you want, but this will entail a lengthy and legally difficult process that you should undertake only if you have been trained in employment law.
If there is provision for changing performance standards then you should again explain the reason to the employee, satisfy yourself that the standard you require is reasonable and offer any appropriate training and support and perhaps a period of adjustment. What you and the employee consider reasonable are of course likely to be different, so get an opinion from someone who can be reasonably objective. A lot of reasonableness, but that is how these things are measured if they go to court. If the employee fails to perform the way you want, then apply discipline gently, bearing in mind at all times that the purpose of discipline is to obtain improvement and not to punish.
We all of us probably could do better if, say, our livelihoods were at stake. But to get better performance from employees requires firm but fair management.