13 Bad Excuses for Letting Poor Performance Slide

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on dealing with poor performance.

In my last post, we met Robert, a well-meaning manager who waited far too long to fire a poor performer. His reason for the delay seemed noble at first, but the cost to his company and his own career became painful. Is there ever a good reason for letting poor performance drag on? This post lists 13 excuses managers sometimes lean on to postpone or offload the responsibility for confronting bad behavior.

Credits: Thanks to Peter Friedes (http://www.ManagingPeopleBetter.com), Sarah Licha (http://www.espacerh.com) and Camille Preston, Ph.D. (http://www.aimleadership.com) for your significant input on this topic. Your ideas and examples have made this a richer piece.

The 13 excuses are:

  1. Discomfort with confrontation. “I feel I come across as mean when I confront. I do not want to be viewed as a bully.”
  2. Fear of a lawsuit from someone in a protected class. “Each time I try to bring up the topic, Beth raises the harassment card.”
  3. Extenuating circumstances. “Jim is going through a rough time. His wife has cancer and I need to cut him some slack.”
  4. Anxiety about losing a star performer. “No one can stand working with Joe, but we can't afford to let him go because he is the best financial modeler we have.”
  5. Concern about cross-cultural miscommunication. (The entire prior post provides a vivid example of this one.)
  6. Trying to preserve morale after a downsizing. “Confronting this performance problem right now might generate another wave of fear among the staff.”
  7. Desire to maintain headcount. “I know he is a poor performer. But if he goes now, I may lose my budget for this position.”
  8. Poor timing. “If I deal with this issue now, I might not reach my yearly objectives.”
  9. Popularity. “The staff loves her. If I fire her, the rest of the team may revolt.”
  10. The nonprofit factor. “We are a nonprofit and well aware that people work here for less pay than in the private sector. There is an added expectation of always being ‘nice’ because we are ‘doing good.’ I don’t want to discourage our workforce by seeming mean.”
  11. Uncertainty. “I am not sure I am right in my assessment.”
  12. Magnitude. “The issue isn’t that important. I will confront him if something bigger happens.”
  13. The employee’s self esteem. “I do not want to hurt the employee’s confidence.”

Some of these excuses sound quite reasonable, but each is “fed” by one or more erroneous assumptions. For example, in numbers 2-4, the manager seems to assume there are only two choices—letting the poor performance continue unchecked or firing the employee. What about coaching?

Equal opportunity performance management

Suppose numerous customers filed complaints about a particular employee’s conduct. Does it matter if that employee is male, female, young, old, in a particular ethnic group, able-bodied or wheelchair-bound, or your most brilliant software developer? You are not serving your customers if you let the employee’s poor conduct continue. If you would confront a non-protected-class employee about a particular issue, then it is also appropriate to do the same with an employee in a protected class and your star performers.

In #3, Jim does need some slack, but how should a manager define “slack”? Suppose Jim’s head is elsewhere and he is making lots of errors. Letting the errors continue is not the right solution. Talking with him about the errors and then offering him a paid leave of absence so he can focus on his family takes care of Jim and your customers.

Part 3 of this post will offer some tips to make these performance conversations easier. But you need to have these conversations.

If your customers, project quality, team productivity or morale are suffering, is there any valid excuse for failing to intervene in a timely manner? Aren't the 13 excuses above just managerial versions of “the dog ate my homework”?

Note to readers: If this post struck a chord and if you are a manager, check out the free assessment at www.ManagingPeopleBetter.com. (You get a free report and you also will be helping us with a research study on management styles.)

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