‘They Never Told Me I Had to Get to Work on Time’

Ridiculous as it sounds, “they never told me” is a standard defense in employment lawsuits. It plays to the jury’s sense of fairness, and it plays pretty well.

‘Surely They Know What I Want’

Managers and supervisors don’t like confronting their employees about performance problems so they tend to assume that employees are aware that they are not doing an acceptable job.

Unfortunately, employees don’t think that way. They assume that everything is fine unless they are told otherwise. Then if there’s a termination and they are surprised, they fight back—in court.

In front of a jury “they never told me they were displeased with my work” becomes a poignant plea for justice. The jury is likely to agree—It wasn’t fair.

In contrast, think of the same jury, but there’s a clear trail of formal performance appraisals and informal counseling that shows that the company bent over backwards to try to get this employee up to an acceptable level of performance. The jury’s likely to side with the employer that gave a wayward employee every chance to improve.

The Four M’s

It’s easy to set good goals if you follow the Four Ms of Goalsetting—Meaningful, Measurable, Makeable, Mutual.

Good Goals Are Meaningful

  • Broadly based on and supporting the organization’s mission and strategy
  • Directly linked to division and departmental goals
  • Important to the organization
  • Important for the individual, relating to central parts of the job

Good Goals Are Measurable

Vague goals with no measures attached do little to motivate employees. They are nearly meaningless at appraisal time since they are open to completely different interpretations by the employee and the boss.

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Some examples of vague goals:

  • Do a better job at X
  • Shake things up and develop a better mousetrap
  • Bring that average up a little

Try these goals instead:

  • Increase production of X by 10 percent given an overtime budget increase of 6 percent
  • Evaluate the process of the widget production and delivery and restructure to achieve a 3-day reduction on order-ship time
  • Bring the average truckloads delivered per month to 230.

Good Goals Are Makeable

A goal set so high that there is no hope of achieving it is no goal at all. And a goal that’s no challenge is a gift, not a goal. Spend time to find a reasonable balance.

If an incentive is involved, it’s often useful to set several levels, for example, 5 percent improvement nets one level of incentive payment and a 10 percent improvement nets a higher incentive.

Good Goals Are Mutual

Finally, goals should be mutually agreed on. It’s important to have “buy-in” from the employee and it eliminates the complaint that “I didn’t know the goals or understand them.” Furthermore, the employee’s insights into the job and how challenging it might be to attain a goal are important input in developing the goals.

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Frequent Measurement is Key

The appraisal meeting should never surprise the employee, most experts agree. Surely the metrics for important goals are calculated more often than once a year. So go over the numbers or the figures with the employee on a monthly or at least quarterly basis.

For major projects, set milestones or stepping stones—a series of intermediate goals that let everyone track how the project is coming along.

For example:

Month 1 Interview staff involved, industry contacts and vendor contacts
Month 2 Create detailed operation plan and budget
Month 3 Secure all necessary approvals and identify vendors
Month 4 Send Request for Proposal out to vendors
Month 5 Plan staffing changes, workflows
Month 6 Review vendor proposals, make site visits
Month 7 Select vendor, order materials and equipment
Month 8 Prepare documentation, training, announcements, etc, go for vendor training
Month 9 Take delivery, install, enter test data
Month 10 Train, enter full data
Month 11 Begin parallel running
Month 12 Switchover to new system

One thing to remind managers about during training—if the project fails, it will reflect poorly on the manager as well as the employee.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, legal pitfalls in performance appraisals, and an introduction to a unique leadership training system.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if the word “goal” can create problems itself–is it too squishy? Is there a word that isn’t quite so aspirational? If you terminate an employee for failing to meet a goal, he or she can argue “Well, I thought that was just something to shoot for. I didn’t realize it was a requirement.”

  • Anonymous

    How about “4 Tools for Performance Improvement Measurement” as a title? We teach our managers that all goals must be vectored and must have at least 2 resource-based objectives related to the vectors. Which vectors? The most common take the form “Do X by Y with Z outcome.” Plans like those often decrease the fuzz-factor significantly. When the fuzz-factor is low, so too is the fudge-factor – the slippage you get when objectives and goals leave too much room for subjective reinterpretation of data.

  • Anonymous

    For performance problems like attendance I like using – Immediate, marked, and sustained in both verbal and written notices. This gives them a time frame – immediate, change will be noticeable – marked, and must continue – sustained. Then be clear that failing in any one of these areas is enough for disciplinary action.

  • Anonymous

    It is up to the Employer or HR when hiring an individual to explain the hours of work including the allowence time they can come in early and no latter than what is acceptable. Have it also written in their employees hand books when they are hired and told they need to read it and sign and acknowledgment form, that they have read and understand what it says in the employees handbook.