« April 2007 | Main | June 2007 »

May 2007

Coaching Employees & Handling Sidetracks - The Customer Stinks!

Without question, "What about them?" and What about you?" are the most frequent sidetracks you'll encounter as you attempt to use the 6-Step Coaching Tool to coach your employees on tweaks to performance long before corrective action or a formal process is necessary. 

What are other popular Sidetracks (objections/excuses/reasons) will you hear?  #3 and #4 are as follows:

3.  My Tools Stink - This sidetrack is often used by an employee to point out they can't accomplish their objectives because their tools don't work correctly.  Another common manifestation of this one (if you are in a service/product business) is that the product we sell doesn't work correctly, meaning they can't possibly be expected to reach their performance goals.  The good news when you hear this sidetrack - hopefully you can assume that everything else is in place for them to be successful.  What does the manager do with this sidetrack? Troubleshoot and assist in removing barriers as you become aware of them, and manage expectations regarding what the employee can control within their role.  Additionally, regular one-on-one meetings are key in handling this type of sidetrack to inquire about obstacles.

4.  The Customer Stinks - My favorite - performance struggles are due to a customer with unrealistic expectations, usually followed by the employee disengaging or avoiding the customer(s) providing the problems.  What does the manager do with this sidetrack?  Define acceptable customer behavior (hint - most behavior below the cussing line is acceptable - you'll always have 10% of your customer base that takes way more than 10% of your time) and then define what acceptable performance looks like for the employee with that type of customer.  Once complete, hold them accountable to what you agree on.

As always, patience is key for the manager using the coaching tool.  Play on!

Just for Fun - Coaching for Performance the Bull Durham Way: Bull_durham_1_2

Crash Davis: It's time to work on your interviews.

Nuke LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do?

Crash Davis: You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: "We gotta play it one day at a time."

Nuke LaLoosh: Got to play... it's pretty boring.

Crash Davis: 'Course it's boring, that's the point. Write it down.

Coaching Employees & Handling Sidetracks - It's Not Me! It's You!

As outlined earlier, the 6-Step Coaching Tool is a pretty sleek performance management tool (read more here, here and here)- until you stop talking, at which point all bets are off...   Why the variability with such a world class tool?  Simple - faced with feedback from you regarding an area for improvement, employees do what all humans do - point to someone/something else.  With this in mind, your managers have to be ready for "Sidetracks" when using the tool - excuses/reasons/objections why the employee isn't accountable for what the manager has observed.

Here's the top two (of six) Sidetracks your managers will hear when using the coaching tool:

1.  What About Them?  If everyone else is doing it, I can't be held accountable, right?  When given the chance to respond to your observations, many employees will grab the easy out - everyone else is doing the same thing.  What's the manager do when this sidetrack is used?  Focus on the individual accountability the employee has and bring the focus back to him/her.    Related response - tell the employee you'll be on the lookout for similar issues with others and promise to hold them accountable - then bring it back to them.

2.  What About You?  Ouch!  As your manager, I bring up a component of performance I would like you to do better in and you drag me into your response?  That hurts - but it's a common response from employees when using the 6-Step coaching tool.   Common angles with this sidetrack - you don't give me the support I need, or imagine this - you are a control freak who can't delegate fully, meaning the employee is waiting on you before they can do their task/job.  Best response for the manager - offer support and remove the barriers/obstacles you create, then bring the focus back to what the employee can control on their own.

Why the sidetracks from employees?  Remember, it's human nature.  Additionally, honest feedback with a boss is rare - so rare, in fact, that the employee will think they are about to be counseled or fired.  Having informal, no strings attached conversations about performance takes time to build within your culture, so be patient with the responses you receive - but work through all the steps in the tool.

Just for Fun - Coaching for Performance the Bull Durham Way (complete with "What About You?" sidetrack)

Nuke LaLoosh: Why's he calling me meat? I'm the one driving a Porsche.

Crash Davis: Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.

Nuke LaLoosh: What's this guy know about pitching? If he's so good how come he's been in the minors for the last ten years? If he's so good how come Annie wants me instead of him?

Crash Davis: Oh, hey, and another thing, Meat. You don't know anything, all right? If you wanna make it to the bigs, you'll listen to me. Annie only wants you so she can boss you around, got it? So relax! Let's have some fun out here! This game's fun, OK? Fun!  And don't hold the ball so hard, OK? It's an egg. Hold it like an egg.

Merrill Lynch - Cutting Sick Days from 40 (not a typo) to 3...

Merrill Lynch is no longer the employer of choice for the slackers of the world....  From the category of "I can't believe I missed this" comes news that Merrill Lynch has cut the number of sick days available for its 60,000+ workers from 40 (yes, forty) to 3.    John Hollon's blog at Workforce.com tipped me off to this last night.  From John's blog:Jeff_spicoli

"This may sound like a big change, but a Merrill Lynch spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that the new sick day guidelines are just a "minor policy adjustment," adding: "We’re trying to reduce the number of people taking every Friday off in July." The policy changes, according to the spokesperson, simply bring Merrill Lynch sick policy in line with that of its competitors.

Yes, this may simply be a change to stay competitive for Merrill Lynch, but I was struck by the nuttiness of enacting a new corporate-wide policy for 60,000-plus employees rather than dealing head-on with what seems to be a more basic problem: a raft of workers calling in "sick" so they could take three-day weekends during the summer. Why didn’t Merrill management just deal with that issue directly?"

Fair comments from John.  My take in addition to John's thoughts?  What is a Fortune 500 company doing offering up 40 sick days across the enterprise for to begin with?  Is that a by-product of the horse and buggy era, when a dose of Tuberculosis could put you out on a more frequent basis?

In any event, Merrill looks a little lean on the sick day front at 3 days.  Data from Mercer reports the average company provides 8.1 sick days a year and the average employee takes 5.2 of those.  No question Merrill had a situation on their hand at 40 days, but they could have done more to protect themselves in the court of public opinion, etc.   Seems like a good time to move to a PTO policy and roll all the time into one bucket (making sure they had enough to still position themselves as an employer of choice in this area) to manage the spin. 

When Coaching Employees Turns Into a Carwreck - "The Sidetrack"

Stop me when you have heard this scenario before - a manager observes an aspect of an employee's performance that is counterproductive to the goals of the position or organization.  Rather than having a quick, non-formal sit down with them to talk it out, the manager in question avoids the issue until it becomes the elephant in the room they can no longer avoid.   The manager then wants/needs formal action in the shape of a written warning to address what has become a severe issue in their eyes. Bull_durham_1

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way.  To encourage the effectiveness of non-formal coaching conversations long before managers have the need for a formal corrective action process, I'm a big proponent of a 6-Step Coaching Tool designed to provide a framework for quick, on the fly coaching conversations.  See more about this 6-Step Coaching Tool here, here and here...

The tool is very effective and can be used for just about any coaching situation.  Here's the rub - coaching is a 2-way process (Can't employees just sit there like robots?  OK, some might, but the smart ones will be engaged and will challenge the assumptions you are making).  The tool forces a response from the employee when you stop talking to wait for their reaction to your observation (Step #2 - Stop talking and let the employee respond).   When you stop talking and listen to the reaction, it's human nature that the person in front of you is going to come back at you with excuses/reasons/objections.  I call these reasons/objections "Sidetracks", and here are the top 6 Sidetracks you'll hear when you try and coach an employee on any issue:

1.  What About Them?

2.  What About You?

3.  My Tools Stink...

4.  The Customer Stinks...

5.  My Life Stinks....

6.  <Insert Your Sidetrack here>

I'll break down these six sidetracks over the rest of the week and provide some thoughts about the best way to handle them.  To add to the degree of difficulty and as a tip to the baseball season we are in the midst of, I'll mix in the coaching experience of Crash Davis (played by Kevin Coster) in Bull Durham as he tries to mentor Nuke Laloosh (played by Tim Robbins).  Stay tuned and check back in.... 

Performance Management - Can You Put Employees in Control of the "Meets vs. Exceeds" Equation?

Last week I broke off a couple of riffs (this one and that one) regarding the difference between a Meets vs. Exceeds when evaluating employees via your Performance Management process.  I've probably said enough on the topic for at least a week - so I'll give everyone a break - from my thoughts on the topic anyway...Office_performance_management_2

How about someone else's thoughts on the importance of the Meets vs. Exceeds dynamic?  While most of my thoughts on Performance Management have been focused on the impact driving the distinction between the two ratings can have on business results, the folks at More Than a Living popped up last week with a reminder of why the differentiation is just as important to the employee:

"You’ve had your review. Hopefully with feedback from many, likely with input and reflections just from your manager.

No one becomes “valued” doing just their one thing - we are all replaceable when we fail to differentiate against our stereotype or next-best candidate for the job. You can be the most brilliant, wicked smart recruiter (or tax accountant or programmer) on the street, but if all you do is take orders and execute, you are valued based on your tactical contributions. True or not, the market perception is that tactics can be delivered by any fellow with a similar resume. And to a large degree, rightly so.

What are you doing to outgrow your last performance review? Are you more than tactical delivery? Who is singing your songs of greatness?"

Pretty good stuff - supporting the need to differentiate performance from the employee's point of view.  The tough part about this angle?  How do you have this type of conversation with the masses without sending out the alarm bells of forced ranking and outsourcing/offshoring?  It's a delicate balance to strike, but one all performance cultures need.

The folks at More Than a Living have a product under development called Kumquat.  After looking at the preview, it looks like it will be an on-demand performance management tool designed for the employee, with tools like 360 feedback incorporated to ensure balanced feedback when the employee reaches out to understand how others perceive their contributions.

A neat idea to say the least.  I am sure the goals of Kumquat are much broader, so I'll let their team leave a better description in the comments section if they are so inclined... 

Gen Y and Z - Introspective and Coachable in the Career Space?

As my recent post chaffing at the prospect of having an avatar to recruit with might suggest, I haven't yet drank all the Kool-Aid regarding the need to change everything about the workplace to fit new college grads. After all, what about how Generation X would feel about that? (disclaimer - that's my generation BTW) Matt_foley

With that in mind, I will drink a sip to the conventional wisdom that it's a good idea for the kids to figure out what's important to them in a career.  To that end, it looks like colleges are seeing an uptick in graduates seeking personality profiles, coaches, etc.  That makes sense, and it's probably a tremendous business opportunity for someone who can figure out the best way to help the newbies out.

What the kids might need is a big dose of the right motivational speaker - How about Matt Foley?

Talent Watch - "Meets" vs. "Exceeds" from the Employee's Point of View

A couple of days ago, I commented on Performance Differentiators that compared/contrasted the difference between a employee who "Meets' expectations and one who "Exceeds" expectations.  Lots of quality comments followed, most tweaking the logic based on their experiences and perspective - which is good!Officespace_thebobs_2

One item I've been thinking about is how the normal employee views the Meets vs. Exceeds situation when you transition to a 3-point rating scale.  My own experience with this suggests that we have historically conditioned employees poorly through the use of tools like the 5-point rating scale.  Why is the type of rating scale important?  Though the use of the 5-point rating scale, most employees have been conditioned by their managers to expect to receive a blend of 3's and 4's (think meets and sometimes exceeds) - resulting in blended average overall scores of 3.4, etc. 

The result under the 5-point scale?  Since the manager didn't have to make the tough choices on Meets vs. Exceeds, the employee walks away thinking they "Sometimes Exceed", and loses motivation to figure out how to improve.  Additionally, by giving the blend of 3's vs 4's, the manager rarely is accountable for raising the bar on performance - the employee never pressures them to tell them what it is going to take to "Exceed". 

Of course, when you try to migrate to the 3-point scale to drive more direct conversations with employees, the 5-point history is a significant barrier to overcome.   

What are your experiences?

UPDATE - Deb at 8 Hours and A Lunch grabbed onto this in about 3 minutes and posted a killer performance management conversation for the ages from Office Space.  Notice the Employee taking charge of this one.  ..... Thanks Deb!!

Vacation Policies, the Crackberry and Your Company Culture...

There's been a solid uptick recently in the number of media outlets talking about the perils for wired, overworked employees.  The best summary from those talking the talk appears at Business Week's "Do Us a Favor, Take a Vacation".  From the article:

"A new survey by employment firm Hudson says more than half of American workers fail to Blackberry_on_the_beachtake all their vacation days. Thirty percent say they use less than half their allotted time. And 20% take only a few days instead of a week or two. Among so-called extreme jobholders—what author Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls the professional class panjandrums—42% claim they have to cancel vacation plans "regularly." Americans take even less vacation than the Japanese, the people who gave rise to karoshi—the phenomenon of being worked to death.

Former NASA scientists, working on behalf of Air New Zealand and using testing tools normally reserved for astronauts, recently found that vacationers experienced an 82% increase in job performance post-trip. The now-popular micro-vacations—taking two or three days off—do not deliver the same stress-reduction benefits as vacations that last one and two weeks, research shows. Moreover, experts agree that a key ingredient in peak performance is a drastic change of venue coupled with shutting down for extended periods of time. "Making yourself available 24/7 does not create peak performance," says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. "Recreating the boundaries that technology has eroded does."

So how do our vacation policies play into this?   Couple of things from my perspective that more than likely drive behavior and acceptance of the need to take vacations in your organizations:

1.  The Stick - Use it or lose it Vacation Time on an annual basis (Policies that mandate usage for all or some of vacation time each calendar year, or you lose it).

2.  The Delayed Stick - Aggressive Accural Caps to Vacation time if you don't have a "use it or lose it" policy (meaning once an employee reaches 80-120 hours, they stop accruing - which means they are in a "use it or lose it" situation at that point)

3.  The Role Model - Leading By Example - Directors and department heads who take at least a week's worth of vacation at a time and connect back on a limited basis, signaling to all who work for them that's acceptable behavior.

4.  The Best Buy Example - We don't care when you show up, as long as the work gets done (that's extreme, check out the breakdown of this program here...)

5.  Crackberry Rehab - Turn in your Crackberry before you go on vacation, and we are disabling your VPN and WebMail account.  Detox for the wired manager.

Of course, you can have all of this in place with the exception of #5 (which rarely exists), and the Crackberry and other digital tools can provide the path to check in repeatedly for the manager trying to take a vacation.  Interestingly enough, the BW article also cites research citing the fact that typing out Crackberry replies fires up the dopamine-reward system to your brain, becoming clinically addictive for a small percentage of users.  Nice....

New Rollovers in Dental Plans

As most of you who design and/or administer benefit plans know, most Dental plans have an annual max that folks have to work with - usually $500 to $1,500 annually for each covered employee/dependent.  Use it or lose it, and start with a new pool of dollars the next calendar year.

Evidently, the long arm of preventative care on the medical side has found it's way to the Dental plan.  With an eye towards costly factors like gum disease--which studies have linked with diabetes, heart disease and premature birth, many dental providers are now allowing members to roll over a percentage of their unused maximum treatment limits to subsequent years, with the amount of the percentage determined by the insurers.

Some of the plans cap the number of years you can hold carryovers, some have a hard cap on a dollar amount limit - lots of flavors in this space.  Additionally, the studies show that it only costs companies 5% more to offer such rollovers, but I would think it is hard to lock that number down since you are deferring an expense to the plan that you plan to pay for at some point in the future.

One more way big-ticket Medical items are dictating strategy - similar to the new trend of giving Rx away free in order to control disease management issues....

Getting Your Head Around Tuition Aid as a Benefit

Candidates love to see Tuition Aid on your recruiting brochure.  Employees love to know that it is available.  But does it work in retention?  Most would say yes, but there's been little actual evidence to support the assumption.  A recent citing in the Wall Street Journal found a connection:

"A new study by a Stanford graduate student found attrition much lower among participantsBluto  in a tuition reimbursement program at a unnamed not-for-profit organization. The results support a Wharton School study that found tuition reimbursement programs appear to select "better-quality employees" who stay on the job longer. Last year, 85% of 1,000 larger employers offered some form of educational assistance. One of the more successful programs is that of United Technologies. About 12% of the company's 72,000 US employers are enrolled in the program. According to the company, turnover among those in the program is lower than the rest of the workforce." (The Wall Street Journal, 21-May-2007, Central ed., p. B4)

Couple of observations about this from my end.  First up, I think the United Technologies example is the exception rather than the rule.  One of the complex things about Tuition Aid is that while it is an attractive benefit, it is hard to use.  People have kids, other obligations, etc., so it's hard to go back to school while you are working - think of that as a natural barrier to entry.  With that in mind, the figures I have seen at most companies are in the 3-4% participation range.

Next up - do you drive retention through a payback agreement?  Most companies I am aware of do - usually for a rolling period of one year from the date of each reimbursement associated with the program.

Finally - the most important component of the program from a retention standpoint probably has to address the perception of "underemployment".  After all, once the employee grabs the degree, the customer service or entry-level marketing job doesn't seem so meaty anymore.  With that in mind, your program needs to find opportunities for new graduates who matriculated through your Tuition Aid program.  That's tough for companies to accomplish, especially smaller ones.

One note - I worked for BellSouth Mobility (now Cingular, soon to be AT&T - gotta love consolidation) in the mid 90's and went back to school via their Tuition Aid program to grab my MBA.  Upon graduating, I left in a hurry to enter consulting (no payback agreement!).  However, two years later, they recruited me back.  How they treated me with Tuition Aid and other programs was a big reason for the quick boomerang, a point not unrelated to the concept of retention...