Why Effective People Managers Have Honest Courage

My Caller ID said it was Nathan Peedrick (not his real name). He’s the #2 executive at DVS Manufacturing Company (DVSM), an employer of 200 people, and a coaching client of mine. Nathan was in a terrible state. “Hank, we just got notice of a lawsuit and I’m beside myself. A worker we laid off last June is suing us for discrimination and unlawful termination. Can you help me?”

Nathan’s company did have a reduction in force last June. The claimant, Lucile Jones (not her real name), stated that her three-year employment with DVSM was terminated because she was female, and over 50. She stated that her work record was impeccable, having consistently been rated above average on DVSM’s annual performance evaluations. The six other people laid off with her had been offered re-employment but she was not. All six were male and under 40. She scored better on her performance evaluations than five of the six former employees who were re-hired.

This is the kind of nightmare situation that every CEO dreads. Regardless of whether or not the employer has wrongfully terminated an employee for the reasons claimed, the costs and disruption are immense:

  • Attorney’s and court fees
  • Time required to research, provide documents and policies, prepare a defense, and litigate
  • Damage to the employer’s reputation and the subsequent negative impact on employees and customers
  • Fines and penalties (or settlements) if the case is lost or settled out of court
  • Remediation and compliance costs to prevent future violations, if a violation is found
  • The opportunity cost of the time and resources consumed by litigation

Autopsy of What Actually Happened

After meeting with Nathan, DVSM’s HR director, Lucile’s former supervisor, and the production manager a clearer picture of what had happened emerged.  Lucile was the kind of employee who was difficult to manage.  She knew the system and pushed hard around the edges to do as little as possible to meet the minimums.  She was capable of doing good work… but only when she wanted to.  Whenever confronted with any deficiency in her work, Lucile would get angry and claim that she was being treated unfairly.  Her former supervisor said she got tired of Lucile pushing back every time and figured that the best way to deal with her was to not confront her. 

When it came to performance evaluations, Lucile would argue loudly that “I’m the best person DVSM has, and damn lucky to have me.”  Lucile’s supervisor got tired of fighting Lucile on every score so she rated her above average, which seems to appease Lucile.  To make matters worse, Lucile’s supervisor had no documentation to support Lucile being anything other than an above-average employee.

DVSM’s layoff provided the opportunity to exit Lucile without having to focus on her deficiencies as an employee.  There was no way that Lucile would be hired back, as difficult as she was to manage. 

The Root of the Problem

What the court would see was an above average female employee over 50 not re-hired when lesser performing under-40 male employees were re-hired.  Lucile had the documentation to back her up.

What the court should have seen through documentation was an under-performing employee not offered re-hire because of a poor performance record and a history of being difficult to manage. 

Why did it wind up being a major headache for DVSM?  Because Lucile’s supervisor lacked the honest courage to address Lucile’s performance and behavior issues as they happened.

A Call for Honest Courage

In any organization, an effective leader best displays his or her honest courage not by the bold risks taken and aggressive programs implemented, but by the honesty with which he or she delivers feedback to his or her staffers.  It takes courage to look someone in the eye and respectfully deliver the feedback he or she needs to hear, especially when that feedback means addressing performance shortcomings in a staffer’s overall performance.

What if several years earlier:

  • Lucile’s supervisor, upon observing Lucile’s performance and behavior, immediately gave her feedback on what he was doing well AND not so well?
  • Lucile’s supervisor described each performance and behavioral standard and why it had to be consistently met or exceeded?
  • Lucile’s supervisor described what she observed in Lucile’s performance and behavior relative to the standards, and described the difference (whether good or bad), and how that difference impacted the unit?
  • Lucile’s supervisor problem-solved with Lucile to address all her performance and behavioral shortcomings?
  • Lucile’s supervisor accurately and fairly held Lucile accountable for meeting all of her performance standards?
  • Lucile’s supervisor scored Lucile’s performance evaluation with the scores she merited, provided specific examples to support her scores, and required Lucile to address her shortcomings in a timely manner?

It’s quite likely that Lucile’s carrier track would have turned out very differently because Lucile’s supervisor would have had the honest courage to nip bad behavior and performance in the bud. And DVSM would have avoided the costs of defending themselves in a lawsuit. Who knows – if managed properly, Lucile could have become the above average performer she thought herself to be.

Bottom Line

Performance and behavioral shortcomings never get better with age.  When a supervisor or manager applies honest courage to help his or her people meet and exceed expectations, and holds them accountable, everyone wins.

This post is taken from the best practices taught in our award-winning leadership development programs,  Leading Through People™ 6 – Performance Management, and Leading Through People™ 7 – Conducting Meaningful Performance Evaluations.

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

I work with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. To find out more, please visit us at www.boyermanagement.com, email us at info@boyermanagement.com, or call us at 215-942-0982.

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