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Sharpen your human resource skills

Part 2: Performance management

I hear you saying, “Why can’t people just do what they are supposed to do?” Ah yes, the frustration of performance management (PM). As the manager and the human resource professional for your operation, you need to manage people’s performance. PM is an ongoing process (not a yearly event called performance review) and requires communication, that is talking, and listening with understanding. PM also requires clearly defined expectations and consequences.

The three critical elements (communication, expectations and consequences) are embedded in PM’s four Fs: frequency, fodder, feedback, and followup.

Frequency: Once is not enough. Take time to communicate with your employee at the start and end of each new task or responsibility. The goal of the first communication is to understand the standard of the task — the expectation. The goal of the communication at the end of the task is to provide feedback — how was the expectation met?

If the task is large, communicate at critical points along the way. Provide detailed expectations, repeat the main expectation and give feedback on what has been completed to that point.

Frequency is dependent on the experience and knowledge of the employee. For a long-term employee, there will be fewer PM discussions. But less discussion does not mean no discussion; communication still needs to happen. New employees, regardless of their experience and knowledge, need frequent PM communication. Remember, there is a lot of new information being thrown at them in a short period of time, and you’re setting the stage for performance management.

Fodder: PM communication needs to be meaningful. In a feedlot sense it needs to be nutritious. Nutrition is found in clearly articulating sound expectations.

Use the SMART goal rule to determine if your expectations have nutrition. The expectation should be Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.

For example, rather than telling someone to clean the barn, consider this expectation using the SMART goal rule: “A clean barn has no debris on the floors, walls and chute. Removing the debris takes about 45 minutes. After the debris is gone, the floor is pressure washed. This takes about 30 minutes.” Does this seem like overkill? Face it — this is really what you want done, so you might as well clearly share your expectation.

Feedback: It is fine to say “good job,” but even better to say specifically what was good about the job. For example, if the hired hand just finished chopping a silage field, rather than telling them they did a good job (not a lot of nutrition), consider these statements: “Good job on chopping the field. You cut at the right height which ensured that no nutritional feed was left behind. You also maximized the full width of the chopper. This saves us money and time. You did plug the chopper once. Next time you get to a spot where it is really thick, slow down. I expect that in the next field you will slow down for those trouble spots and not plug. Plugging slows down operations.”

This nutritious statement clearly confirms what performance achieved the standard and what didn’t. It also communicates what needs to happen next time so that the performance can improve. This nutrition statement also includes consequences of the performance, both positive and negative.

Followup: You have clearly communicated the standard, and you have provided feedback. Now you have to followup, especially on performance that didn’t meet the standard. Followup is a critical part of the consequence element.

If you identify work that is not up to your expectations, let the employee know so they can correct their performance. For example, if you told the employee not to plug the chopper in the next field, followup. The more timely the followup, the more meaning it will have. Followup should include assessing if they got it right, if they understood and if there is some other problem.

Basic PM requires communication, expectations, and consequences. Just remember the four Fs and you will be off to a great start.

As discussed above, frequency, fodder, feedback and followup are what you need to know 90 per cent of the time for performance management. Critical conversations, training, discipline and termination should address the remaining 10 per cent.

Critical conversations: Talking to employees about poor performance can be tough. We’re often afraid that these conversations can upset the apple cart or cause a display of emotion, so we avoid them. Don’t. As the employee’s manager, it’s your job to deal with the performance problems.

These are high-stakes discussions. Employment and people relationships are at stake so these conversations need to be respectful, calm and about the behaviour, not the person. For example, telling an employee he/she has a poor attitude is a bad idea (and they may tell you what they think of your opinion). Attitude is about the person. Discuss the behaviour; state facts, such as: two of five days this week you were late, you overloaded the feed bunk because you were texting, and you never checked the cows when asked.

Once you’ve put the poor performance (the behaviour) on the table, make sure the employee knows the expectation. Expectations should be specific: driving down the lane at 8:00 is not starting work at 8:00; starting work at 8:00 means that you’re ready to work, your gear is ready and your morning smoke finished. Identify what needs to be changed. Then work towards a collaborative solution.

A well-executed critical conversation will strengthen your relationship with your employee. If you’ve been clear about the expectations and provided feedback all along, this should not be a surprise.

It will help determine if the poor performance is a result of non-culpable or culpable behaviour: “I would if I could, I can but I won’t.” Sometimes there is a third category, temporary-culpable: “I can but I didn’t because I didn’t think you noticed or cared.” If the poor performance is a result of non-culpable (I would if I could) behaviour, training may be the solution. If the behaviour is culpable (I can but won’t), then discipline or termination may be required.

Being late and texting while working are examples of culpable behaviour or temporary-culpable behaviour. Now that the employee knows you notice and care, the performance will probably change. Make sure you talk about the consequences if the changes do not happen. For example, will the pay be docked; will there be discipline or termination?

In the case of not checking the cows, you may discover that it is non-culpable behaviour. They didn’t check the cows because they didn’t know what to do. Training might be the consequence.

Training: Training can be the solution to poor performance. First, know what it is you want to improve. Of course you want to change an employee’s behaviour so their performance improves, but tie that changed behaviour to an operational outcome, such as reduced cost of feed errors, improved efficiency in checking cattle, etc.

You will know if the training has been effective when the employee not only has learned something, but also has changed behaviours; behaviours that have a positive impact on the operational outcome you identified. Training not only solved the performance problem but now can be considered an investment with a return.

Termination: Sometimes poor or unacceptable performance needs a strong consequence to drive home the point that the performance must change. When the employee or employee relationship is worth saving, consider discipline. Progressive discipline (discipline that progresses in severity) can be an effective tool to drive home a strong message. It also is a strong consequence. Progressive discipline can be a discipline meeting, short to longer suspension without pay, and termination. There are times when performance is so bad, behaviour so unacceptable, or the employment relationship so unsalvageable that firing is the answer.

Firing an employee is never easy and it shouldn’t be. Make that decision when you’re not emotional (be sure it is a rational decision). Once you’ve made the decision, act on it. Delaying only causes you sleepless nights and delays the inevitable. Termination can be the best answer if the employee is not right for the job or the operation.

When terminating an employee be calm and firm, treat them with respect, follow the labour laws, don’t engage in a debate, and inform them of termination consequences. Some of those consequences are pay in lieu of notice, receiving a record of employment, turning in keys and passwords, etc.

PM has its challenges; but it is your job to deal with poor performance. You can deal with those challenges using critical conversations, training and discipline or termination.

This is the second in a series of three articles on human resource management on cattle operations.

Dawn Hillrud is a partner in Knibbs/associates Sourcing People and an associate of Knibbs/associates HR Consulting that provide HR and employee recruitment services to agricultural organizations. Co-author Leah Knibbs is the owner of Knibbs/associates HR Consulting and a partner in Knibbs/associates Sourcing People. For more information contact Dawn at [email protected] or 306-442-7460.

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