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October 02, 2007

Regularly Inspected

Dog food was poisoned, countless toys were recalled, and more than a few fires have been caused by faulty space heaters, so humans aren't always the best at inspection. Your workers are hopefully more complex than the standard wind-up doll or plug-in appliance, but inspecting them is no easier. On the contrary, unlike a toaster liable to start burning your bread and emitting circles of smoke prior to a melt-down, employees are harder to read. Sure, occasionally it's obvious something isn't right. They're in at 10 (a.m.?), out by 3 (p.m.?) in deference, they say, to the timetable of the winter sun, or maybe, they've started throwing lunch meat over the cubicle wall. But, more often, there's no way to know unless you ask.

Unfortunately, asking usually involves telling, and that telling usually comes in the form of an uncomfortable performance review. The problem is if you want to know if any thing's wrong, you have to explain why you think something may be troubling the worker."I've noticed your schedule has been erratic lately, and I know you mentioned you're now trying to adhere more closely to the schedule of the winter sun to combat your seasonal affective disorder, but I just wanted to make sure it wasn't anything else."  From there, do you become accusatory, citing recent assignments turned in late or in unsatisfactory condition, or do you first try to act as therapist, drawing on the psychology degrees many of you earned in college?  Instead of first outlining evidence of sub-standard performance, is it better to take the human, rather than inspector, route, and ask if they're okay?

When inspecting potentially faulty merchandise, and intercepting it before it reaches the show floor, it's possible to be given a list of tell-tale signs the device may explode. As such, inspectors of everything from household electronics to automobiles can take a methodical, quasi-scientific approach. Is any such efficiency possible, or even desirable, in the realm of the human? 

As a human resources representative, conflict resolution manager, or line-of-business supervisor, it isn't your job to act as Corporate Freud, and you may find a hostile response if you try to, but, at the other extreme, you don't want to leave your worker feeling like an Oldsmobile circled by white-jacketed technicians, who've looked under the hood, and are ready to poke at the fender before shipping the unpromising vehicle back to the plant.

How do you conduct a reliable review and fact-finding mission with your employees every year without alienating them, or making them feel de-humanized?  Is there any room for the "human" approach of first asking if they're okay, or do you need to strictly limit questions and comments to performance-based observations?

They may not be as revved-up about their work as they once were, but, sadly, fixing the problem will be more complicated than recommending the purchase of a new extension cord.

Are your employees regularly inspected and rejected or analyzed and kindly inquired after--or some efficient (yet respectful) combination of the two?


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John Elmer

I've learned that the first step is to measure your system. In other words, not only what is expected of the employee but also what you system produces. (I expect the employee to make 5 every day, but, because of equipment or materials not working or being delivered, my employee does 4 to 6 each day.)
Measure the employee against what should be done, and help the amployee to be responsible for attaining the numbers, and for understanding the consequence to the company for not meeting expectations.
Also - don't wait until the last minute. Work with your employees every day to understand how to make "work" better.

Phil Clark

Remember, before you can provide feedback that works, you must earn the respect to do it. Just because you are a supervisor does not give you the ability to provide feedback, that is earned. If you first feedback is negative, you set the tone for your relationship. If it is recognizing what a person does right, it shows that you are watching their entire performance.

You also must be able to accept feedback from any of your staff. If you go defensive or get angry. You're dead. Game is up. If you can't take feedback, don't expect anyone to accept it from you.

These concepts of true of any "system". In fact, if you rely on a system, you likely are also going to fail. Feedback is based on relationships, not a system.

Yen Rubie

Being in the Human Resource Arena for almost 6 years, I have learned that performance feedback can be excitable if both employees and "raters" are properly oriented about this. Raters (managers, for this matter) should know what they are supposed to measure (e.g number of refinancing mortgage deals closed) and employees should be aware of the performance standards set against them.

refinancing mortgage

Paul Pease

When I worked at Illinois Tool Works in the 70’s, we had reviews every six months. And the reviews were a two-way discussion- what my supervisor needed me to do to improve, and what I needed the supervisor and company to do to help me grow. Every six months is much better than waiting for 12 months to expire. It’s tighter in terms of generating and measuring activity. Also, it wasn’t MY performance review- the company was being reviewed by me through candid feedback.
Manufacturing processes improve when the accountability for quality is built in, not inspected in after the fact. The same should be true for performance: if a report to any manager (anywhere in the org chart) is not performing to standards, the manager is accountable to resolve the problem. But there is one huge difference with improving product quality and improving employee productivity: while we reject “bad” products, we don’t need to pat the good products on the back because they can’t get better with a pat on the back. People can- and do- get better when you don’t take for granted great performance, or improved performance. Acknowledge good things, great things, and improved things with your people and watch productivity rise.

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