Updated: 31 March, 2007
The Employee Discussion
The shortest PE discussion I personally know about was given to a colleague while he was standing at a urinal in the men’s room. His boss came in, unzipped at the next urinal over, and said, “You haven’t had your PE yet, have you? You’re doing a fine job.” With that, he zipped up and left. I never did hear how he handled discussions with his female employees, and I’m not sure I want to know.
The PE discussion is the heart of the process. Of course it’s important that you gather input and write a PE, and as a manager you’ll learn a lot just from doing those two things, but until you’ve communicated with your employees and gotten their response, you’re not done.
The discussion is also the most perilous part of the process. Even though I’ve been doing PEs for years, I still can’t accurately predict how an individual will react to his or her review. For example, I’ve broken the “never surprise” rule a few times, and that predictably leads to an angry response. But, sometimes the employee takes the surprise calmly and positively. On the other hand, I remember one employee who became unhinged by what I thought was an innocuous suggestion to re-read Strunk and White. Everyone should read William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style [StrunkWhite] at least once a year, but that didn’t stop this particular employee from taking umbrage.
The keys to a successful PE discussion are preparation and attitude. Being prepared means that you’ve gathered useful input, distilled that input into one or two clear themes, thought about—and if necessary practiced—how you will deliver your message, and considered the likely impact of your feedback on the employee. Attitude means that after all that preparation, you’re still open to input from the employee and you’re ready to listen to what he or she has to say. In combination, these two factors make it possible for you to say what you need to say precisely and concisely, then devote the rest of the meeting to the discussion.
Here are some guidelines for your preparation:
- Give the employee a copy of the written PE a few days ahead of time so he or she has plenty of time to read it. If I’m going to discuss a rating or ranking, I will leave that off the advance copy, but otherwise I provide a full copy.
- Pick out a private place for the discussion where you won’t be interrupted. If you have a private office, that’s a good place, but make sure you won’t be interrupted.
- Schedule more time than you think you’ll need. I never schedule less than an hour, and I prefer not to schedule in front of a hard commitment.
- Re-read the PE to refresh your memory about your main themes.
- If you’re delivering a strong negative message, especially if you have any reason to believe you may have to terminate someone’s employment unless he or she improves, get some suggestions from your Human Resources representative on how to handle the situation. There are also some ideas in the section called “Handling Difficult Situations”.
Unless I have a specific negative message that must be delivered, I try to allow the employee to set the direction of the discussion. After all, my main points are in the written PE. While I will re-iterate the most important points to make sure they’re understood, I invariably find that the greatest value in the discussion is from what the employee has to say, not what I have to say.
A good discussion will begin with a look at results from the last year, focusing on what can be learned from them. It will then move to a discussion of objectives for the next year. As mentioned earlier, we need to consider two kinds of objectives, work and professional. Work objectives are job assignments; professional objectives are personal objectives aimed at professional development.
I generally try not to dwell on job assignments in the PE discussion. It’s very easy to lapse into a discussion about project X or project Y when you should be talking about job performance. While job objectives are important and need to be discussed, there are opportunities to discuss them outside the PE process. Therefore, in the PE discussion, I use job objectives primarily as a vehicle for achieving professional objectives.
For example, if a professional objective is to increase an employee’s proficiency with Adobe Photoshop, I will look for a way to tie it to a work objective, either by finding an assignment that requires greater proficiency with Photoshop or by modifying a current assignment. Without that tie-in, it’s very hard to keep the discipline necessary to make progress.
Nearly every time an employee says something like, “I’d like to learn more about XML,” you can bet nothing much will happen until he or she gets a job assignment that requires that skill. I don’t stop employees from having that kind of objective, but when they do, I try to find a practical application to exercise that skill.
If your company gives everyone a ranking or rating, you probably should lead with it. There’s no doubt that nearly everyone is waiting for that piece of information, so I don’t recommend withholding it. The downside, of course, is that if it isn’t what he or she is expecting, the entire discussion may be dominated by that one topic. If you suspect that may be the case, be prepared with a good explanation of why the rating/ranking is the way it is, and then use that explanation to direct the discussion towards the themes you want to discuss.
I try to preempt individual discussion about the ranking and rating process by briefing the team in a group meeting. Since nearly every description of a ranking and rating system I’ve ever seen reads like an example of bad writing, describing one to a group of technical writers with a straight face can be an adventure. Trying to do that one-on-one during a PE discussion wastes way too much time and gives ranking and rating a weight that it doesn’t deserve.
Another plus to having a general discussion in advance is that it’s easier to set expectations at a group meeting than one-on-one. If everyone knows that only 10% of employees will be ranked in the highest category, you can set an expectation that even very competent people will be ranked in lower categories. Also, while I consider it bad form to blame the ranking system in an employee discussion, I’m less scrupulous about acknowledging the system’s shortcomings—and I’ve never met one that didn’t have shortcomings—in a group meeting.
If you need to deliver a difficult message, for example a less than desirable rating, here are some guidelines:
- Prepare: Know what you need to say and how you are going to say it. Think about the questions you’re likely to get and be prepared with answers. You can’t anticipate everything, but you can be ready for the most likely responses. If you’re not sure how to deliver a strong message, talk with your manager and with HR. They should be able to give you some guidelines. Finally, if you’re nervous about delivering a strong message, being prepared helps.
- Be clear and to the point: This is not the time to be vague. Most people are astute enough to see bad news coming, so there’s no point in dragging it out with a long explanation. Here’s a bad example,
Jimmy, I know you tried really hard this year and there were some problems with the specifications from the engineering team over which you had little control. But, we felt that while those problems were a contributing factor in the lateness of the Flim-Flam User’s Guide, there were still factors over which you had control, but since you didn’t raise those issues in a timely fashion, it wasn’t possible to fully factor in the delays, which meant that the project slipped. As a result of that, and after careful consideration, your ranking fell this year.
I’m embarrassed to say that at times I’ve done as badly or worse, usually in inverse proportion to the amount of preparation. Here is a better example:
Jimmy, your ranking fell this year because you did not meet your schedule for the Flim-Flam User’s Guide.
You’ll have plenty of time to get into the inevitable discussion about contributing factors, etc., but a clear statement gets the issues out on the table.
- The news is not a negotiation: What you do about the news may be negotiable, but the facts aren’t.
- Don’t deflect responsibility: You may have spent hours losing an argument with the rest of management team over this person’s rating, and you may disagree strongly with the result, but you need to take responsibility for it anyway. If you believe there was something improper about the result or the process, talk with your manager or HR, otherwise, you need to own the result and present it as yours.
- Be specific about what needs to happen: This is especially important for the extreme cases. If someone’s job performance is sub-standard, that person needs to know it and needs to know what specific actions are necessary to get his or her job performance back to an acceptable level.
- Be specific about consequences: If specific actions are required to save someone’s job, then that person needs to know both the actions required and the consequences for inaction.
- Be positive: This can be tough, especially when the employee is on the brink of being terminated. It’s very easy to fall into the mind-set that you’re just going through the motions because the company makes you go through a bunch of steps before you can terminate someone. But, besides covering the corporate derriere, these steps give the employee an opportunity to redeem him or herself. People do change, and it’s only fair to be as positive as possible about their ability to change.
You may find yourself in a difficult situation that you didn’t expect. I can remember several discussions where I thought I was delivering a positive message and found myself faced with an employee who thought I was delivering a negative message. For example, just because you worked hard to get Eddie into the second highest rating category doesn’t mean that he will be happy about not being in the highest category.
In those cases, I try to simply listen to what he or she has to say, then react honestly. That can be tough, especially if the real reason Eddie didn’t get rated in the highest category is that you weren’t a good enough negotiator in the ranking meeting or your manager heard some negative feedback and gave it more weight than you did. In those cases, let the “Don’t deflect responsibility” guideline lead you.
Don’t expect an immediate resolution. If your explanation is accepted and you can see that the employee is ok with the result, fine. Otherwise, schedule a follow-up meeting so you can discuss things after he or she has cooled down and had time to think things over.
Wrap up the discussion by reviewing the actions each of you will be taking. Think of this like any other meeting that generates action items. Summarize them and make sure you both agree on who is taking what action. If there is disagreement over some point, most written PE forms provide a place for the employee to make comments. I encourage employees to write comments whether we agree or not, but it’s especially important if the two of you disagree.
Finally, take advantage of the discussion to get to know your employees better. The PE discussion gives you a rare opportunity to talk about things that aren’t directly tied to project deliverables. Now is when you can get some idea of what an employee’s longer term ambitions are and where he or she would like to be in a few years. When you know what an employee aspires to, you’re in a better position to help with his or her professional development, and you’re in a better position to plan the evolution of your team. While there’s nothing stopping you from discussing these kinds of topics anytime, in practice that rarely happens, so take the opportunity.