Human Resources seems to be a place of mystery in a lot of organizations. Employee searches, hiring, training, benefits, performance management, promotions and separations all typically happen under the umbrella of HR.  HR is also a risk-management role, where when things are going right, you don’t hear much about it.  When done correctly, HR not only mitigates and manages risk; good HR helps employees feel more supported, drives productivity and fosters teamwork – all keys to success in any organization. 

At the heart, good HR can be really simple if you follow three guidelines:

  1. Employees generally want to be good at their jobs.
  2. People deserve to be treated compassionately.
  3. And above all, no surprises.

Every employee wants to be good at their job. 

One of the hardest things to do is have a frank, honest, constructive conversation with an employee about their performance, especially if there is room for improvement.  As a manager, it’s easy to get frustrated.  As an employee, it’s hard to hear.  To help everyone navigate these sometimes fraught, difficult conversations, consider implementing basic performance management steps.

Step 1: Communicate.  It is imperative that everyone is on the same page with expectations.  It seems overly simplistic to say, but it’s often overlooked – does everyone have a common goal?  If not, then before you can have a conversation about an outcome, you have to have a conversation about expectations.  Expectations should be clearly stated (even better if they are written) and regularly updated, collaboratively.  Prioritize together.

Step 2: Assess.  Are the expectations reasonable?  This is where collaboration is key.  In order to set reasonable expectations, both the manager and the employee have to understand what is possible, and when.  Goals are not expectations.  Ideally, conversations like this: “We need (what) by (when).  Is that reasonable?  Do you need anything from me in order to be successful?” (The best question you can ever ask an employee is, “How can I help you be successful?”)

Step 3: Review.  If the outcome was good, great!  If the outcome exceeded expectations, find out why.  Feedback about a process that went really well is just as important as feedback when it didn’t go well.  And if it didn’t go well, you have a shared understanding from which to evaluate.

So let’s say, together, you’ve put in all the work.  You collaboratively set reasonable expectations, you checked in, you made resources available.  But it isn’t working.  Every employee might want to be good at their job.  That does not mean that every employee is good at every job.  What next?

People deserve to be treated compassionately.

In the instance where an employee is failing, it’s important to ask why.  If an employee has been successful up to that point, and is now failing, what changed?  And is that something that the employer can (or should, or has to) help with?

Institutional knowledge has value.  And training a new employee is costly.  If an employee has been successful in a role and will be successful again, but needs support now, it’s important to assess honestly what that means, and do the right thing.  Employers who treat their employees compassionately, especially when life happens, engender loyalty. 

It is always hard to hear that you failed.  And you know how demoralizing it can be to repeatedly fail.  If an employee has not been successful, despite clear expectations and assistance, they deserve no less compassion. In a termination situation, managers forget that if they’ve put in their work to set expectations and those expectations were not met, the employee already knows that they’ve failed.  The conversation should be fairly simple.  It goes something like, “this role requires a skill set different from what you’ve demonstrated, so it’s better for everyone involved that you find a different job you can excel at.”  It takes so little in those instances to remind those employees that even though they may not have been successful, they still have a valuable skill set and will be successful in the right role.  Telling someone they are generally terrible upon termination is unfair, unnecessary, and likely untrue.

Finally, and above all, no surprises. 

Surprise in an HR situation means you are not managing well.  If someone fails, it should never be a surprise for anyone.  The employee knows what the expectations are, the employee and the manager have agreed that the expectations are reasonable, the manager is checking in, the resources are available.  Common goal, same page, clear definition of success.  No surprises.  If you or your managers are having coaching conversation with employees and anything is surprising, investigate.  Reviews should be boring, because everyone knows what is coming.  Documentation in a file should be common knowledge, because the conversations were transparent.  Even terminations should be expected.  Surprise leads to anger, and anger leads to risk – and good HR is, simply, an investment in risk management.

Good HR, while simple, requires managers to manage.  It requires that they are proactive rather than reactive.  But investments in your employees are investments in your organization.  And ultimately, it’s the people who make your business possible, so getting serious about managing and HR will help you accomplish your organizational mission.