Job Performance Coaching
When we speak of coaching in the context of the work environment, we're addressing the process of formally meeting with an employee to discuss performance issues — and documenting that discussion through a letter or memo that goes to the employee and perhaps to his or her personnel file. In many companies, this is a step in the progressive discipline process. This is not counseling in the sense of “let's uncover what's really bothering you so we can make it better.” You are not a therapist; you are a manager. You cannot address psychological problems, even if you know enough to see that they are present. Your role is to say to this employee, “There are problems with your performance that we need to discuss.” The bottom line is that you want to improve the employee's work-related problems. If that also fixes his or her personal problems, great. But that's not your primary goal.
Often this approach feels cold-hearted and harsh. You are a compassionate human being who genuinely cares about this employee as a person, not just as a productive work unit. And while you can try to focus on the behaviors that you want the employee to change (as you should), you might believe that permanent change will come only when you uncover and somehow address the underlying issues. But that's not your role. Playing therapist (or even friend) can land you and your company in legal hot water. It's a delicate balance indeed, and one that can tip out of control before you know it.
If an employee is having problems at home — with a partner, children, elderly parents, or health — you can lend a sympathetic ear, but you can't intrude into these areas. Recommend that the employee seek outside help. If your company offers an EAP, refer the employee for assistance. If the problem is related to substance abuse, most state employment laws require companies to follow certain procedures for testing, mandatory counseling, and return-to-work agreements. Be sure to follow your company's policies and procedures.
If the employee identifies factors within the workplace that interfere with completing job tasks, establish a plan for you to address those concerns and a time by which you'll get back to the employee with answers or solutions. Every employee has unique needs when it comes to improving job performance, just as each has a unique work style. It's important to establish that this is a serious matter and that you are establishing the framework for remedying the situation yet also allow the employee to participate at a comfortable level. When the coaching meeting ends, you both should be able to leave with your dignity and self-confidence intact. After all, the employee really has more of a vested interest in improving than anyone else.
Documentation Is Your Friend
It's fine for you to take notes during your meeting — invite the employee to do so as well. Whether you do or not, take another ten or fifteen minutes immediately following the meeting (after the employee leaves) to write down a brief accounting of what transpired. Be sure to do the following:
Note what specific examples you used, and how the employee responded.
Write down the details of the improvement plan you agreed upon, as well as the steps that will be necessary to monitor progress.
Record any contributing factors from the work environment that the employee feels interfere with productivity, as well as your intentions for addressing issues that involve the employee.
Before you commit your thoughts to writing, consider how your words might sound a few months or years from now, coming from a lawyer's mouth. Be sure your comments are factual and maintain the same tangible focus as your meeting. Laws vary among states, but in many the courts can subpoena any written materials you keep — including notes intended only for your use. If you have any doubts or concerns about what constitutes appropriate documentation, check with your company's HR or legal department.
Documentation is a good habit to develop. A good paper trail can demonstrate your and your company's consistency in addressing performance issues and can provide irrefutable evidence of your efforts to help the employee change and improve. More often than not, solid documentation deters rather than encourages lawsuits — especially when both manager and employee sign dated copies. This helps protect you and your company against accusations of wrongdoing down the road, when memories have become selective and faded (on all sides). Depending on your company, this could be more than sage advice — it could be corporate policy. Most companies have written guidelines and procedures for managers to follow.
Many managers are leery of committing adverse performance reports to writing, for fear that what they say will come back to bite them in court. However, attorneys who specialize in employment law generally believe documentation is a company's best safeguard against frivolous lawsuits. Written job descriptions and performance appraisals establish procedural consistency. The paper trail that is likely to cause trouble is the one built solely for the purpose of carrying out a particular action. Documentation should support decisions, not create them.
Agree to an Improvement Plan
After you've shared your concerns and listened to the employee's perspective, it's time to move into action mode. Identifying the problems is the first half of your task; identifying solutions is the second. Although you want the employee to participate in developing an improvement plan, you also want to be sure that plan achieves the goals that are important to you and to the company. Every improvement plan should include three core elements:
Specific goals for, and descriptions of, the improvements you want to see. “Memos that leave this department must be free from grammatical and spelling mistakes.”
Specific steps for achieving the described improvements. “I want you to run the spellchecker just before you save or print any document. For the next two weeks, I want to sit down with you at 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. to review all outgoing memos. We will proof them together.”
Specific methods for measuring performance and assessing improvement. “I ran the spellchecker on these memos that I showed you, and each had at least seven errors. By the end of one week, I want the memos we review together to have fewer than three errors each. At the end of two weeks, I want every memo we review together to have no errors that the spellchecker is capable of detecting. We'll meet again at the end of two weeks to discuss your improvement.”
Depending on the kinds of problems that exist and how complex the employee's job duties are, your improvement plan might consist of a few bulleted items or several pages of expectations and directives. Most improvement plans work best when they include an agreement to meet at determined intervals to review progress and make appropriate revisions. If an employee's problems involve numerous job functions, you might want to develop an incremental plan that attacks one problem at a time. Whatever form the plan takes, put it in writing. At the end, put a sentence that says, “I understand the requested improvements and agree to follow this plan to make them happen” (or words to this effect). Then sign your name and write the date, and have the employee sign. Each of you gets a copy.