Threads #11: Top tips on how to appraise staff and deal with poor performance

Guest blog: Tips from founders, to founders, about good ways to appraise staff and how to get the best from those that are underperforming.
31st October 2018

One of the hardest aspects of growing a startup can be learning how to manage the increasing numbers of staff.

People expect regular appraisals of their performance, and if handled well, these can be a positive benefit to the business. Then there is the tricky matter of how to deal with staff who are not performing as you would like. Because it can be tricky to deal with, managers sometimes turn a blind eye to this until it’s too late.

Here are some tips from Founders of South West tech scale-up businesses, taken from the 2017 series of Threads Meetups, helping you to manage staff appraisals and performance improvement.

A mix of informal regular catch-ups with more structured periodic reviews works well for staying in touch. Let your staff set the agenda so that they are actively involved in the process.

There should be no surprises at a formal review. You should have already touched on everything you need to discuss at more regular informal catch ups.

Be supportive during a staff review. Ask “how might we do it differently next time?”, and “what can I do better to support you?”. Get the staff member to own the situation and feel empowered to do so.

Hone your conversation steering skills, set off with the point you need to reach at the front of your mind. Be tenacious about reaching this point and hearing those words from the staff member. Practice this skill often, as it will aid you enormously.

Visible notetaking can halt the flow of conversation during a review. If needed, make very short notes and flesh them out later. If you hit a performance issue, document it, even if you don’t take notes during the meeting. This will be useful if things reach disciplinary.

Some staff are private or detail-oriented and may prefer working to a scheduled review plan, while others may be more informal and respond better to ad-hoc discussions at the right time. Use your emotional IQ and adjust accordingly.

The word ‘appraisal’ can seem judgemental. To build rapport and understanding, ‘review’ is a better term.

360° feedback can be enlightening but time-consuming if it all takes place around year end. But do triangulate feedback from others to confirm or deny any suspicion of an underperforming team member. Corroborate your own views with others in the team to augment your perspective.

Good management requires great emotional intelligence. What you give out, you’ll get back. So if you feel frustrated, express this as your passion for ‘doing things better’ rather than apportioning fault.

If you think the root of an issue lies within someone’s personal life then help them to open up by taking an interest and providing a listening ear. Offer some understanding from your own personal life to encourage them to speak about themselves. Getting to know your staff at a personal level will help you to support and manage them better. Offer a little flexibility and you should see good results.

Think about how your staff see the world and how they like to be managed. Aim to catch up with everyone, individually, once each week. And there’s nothing like sitting down for lunch with the team for making yourself accessible.

Everything begins and ends with the culture of openness that you create; a culture in which it’s safe to make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities. It’s repeating the same mistakes that let us down.

It’s most important that staff fit in with the culture, usually, this is more important than the technical skills they bring along. Technical skills can be learned and existing skills applied elsewhere, but disruptive staff can destroy the culture and the team.

Company away-days are good for team building but don’t replace a good review process. If the business places value on them it should hold the away-day during company time – or offer pay/time off in lieu.

Some employees like to be recognised publicly, while others prefer their achievements to be noted more discreetly.

Staff on performance-based bonuses will want to understand how they’re being measured and whether they’re on track. If you can’t offer cash-based bonuses, offer recognition and personal development opportunities.

If someone really doesn’t have the necessary skills give them training and time to learn. If they continue to fail to grasp those skills, shift their role within the team to help gain the skills, or re-focus on their core strengths until they’re ready for more.

Getting rid of people who don’t fit with the company culture, or who consistently underperform, is usually positive for the rest of the team. But you will need to carefully justify any dismissal.

It’s OK to ask a staff member about ‘reasonable adjustments’. If they are disabled, or you think they might be, seek medical evidence and best practice, then discuss with them what adjustments might assist.

Diarise 18 months from when each employee is hired, as it’s then six months before legal obligations around unfair dismissal begin. Prior to this it’s easy to dismiss without comeback unless the dismissal relates to a ‘protected characteristic’ (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership status, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, or sex) or the employee is being dismissed for raising health and safety concerns or for whistleblowing.

Check whether the contract of employment stipulates a contractual disciplinary process. If it does then you must go through this process before you dismiss even when an employee has less than two years’ service.

A ‘protected conversation’ enables you to have an ‘off the record’ conversation with a staff member with a view to negotiating their exit, so before you take disciplinary action or start capability proceedings. You need to ask them if they are prepared to have a protected conversation before one takes place. You cannot coerce someone into having a protected conversation, nor threaten them with dismissal if they do not resign or enter into a settlement agreement.

If things aren’t working out, build a runway for the staff member to leave. Help them understand why they don’t fit and where they might, to think about alternative options, maybe with a different employer.

An honest, negative, reference may be challenged, as it may be hard to evidence. Employers have no obligation to give a reference, so if it’s bad, simply decline, as this will send its own message.

Threads Meetups are a way for Founders and Managers of technology businesses to share learning, experiences and conundrums. These roundtable discussions unpack topics around leadership, business and operations. Most people find at least one improvement to take away and implement.