My brilliant law partner, Fiona Ong, explained last week about why it is unwise to treat a reduction in force (“RIF”) as a “golden opportunity” to rid yourself of those pesky under-performers whose deficiencies were not documented properly.  (We do know why there is no documentation, BTW.  Those underperformers often are gifted at deflecting responsibility, and honest performance evaluations require, well, honest feedback, which unpleasant people abhor.  For managers, who just want to do their jobs, it is much easier to select “meets expectations, meets, meets, meets” than lose hours debating the ratings.) 

So, let’s talk about how to “set the table” for success – or separation from employment that will hold up – such that your company is not tempted to use a RIF as a means to an end (other than its intended end).

  1. Do document performance and conduct issues and do so consistent with any applicable policies. If your company generally expects documentation in the verbal-written-suspension-termination model, please do that (unless skipping steps is sensible – think smoking weed on the job, physical assault, damaging equipment).
  2. Don’t avoid the conflict. Ladies and gents, if you are in management, producing widgets is not all that you are paid to do.  The path of least resistance – meets, meets, meets – which is indeed easier in the short run, may well make you lose countless hours in the long run preparing for discovery and depositions with Fiona and me. (Seriously, litigation is only fun for lawyers – sometimes not even for us. But for you??!!  Enough said).
  3. Be prepared to be disabused. Your assessment of why an employee has not met expectations may not take account of the whole picture.  If a subordinate defends the deficiency with a credible explanation, don’t be prideful.  Revise (and be respected).
  4. Understand that performance management has the primary purpose of reform. Unless you are candid and constructive, an underperforming employee may be unable to improve.  But if you can help “connect the dots” and coach your subordinate to reach positive change, you will be a hero to that subordinate and to your boss.  Employee turnover has costs, and for the moment, it is a job-seeker’s market in many sectors.
  5. Finally, please, please, PLEASE, loop HR in if an employee connects his/her performance to something that triggers a legal conversation. HR does not want to hear, after the termination, that you were told something that you never shared about why the performance concerns were related to depression, ADHD, trying to juggle the difficulties of managing a sick parent or child with job responsibilities and the like.  Deal with it at the “front end.” These things are often not easy, but they are far less awkward and difficult than they are on the “back end.”

Now, go forth, and document.