HR Management & Compliance

‘But Nobody 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.

‘My Employees Must 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 by it, 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—many of whom are employees themselves—is likely to agree that it wasn’t fair.

In contrast, think of that same jury being shown a clear trail of formal performance appraisals and informal counseling that demonstrates how the company bent over backwards to try to get this employee up to an acceptable level of performance.

The jury’s far more likely to side with an employer that gave a wayward employee every chance to improve.

The Four Ms

It’s easy to set good goals if you follow the Four Ms of goal-setting: Meaningful, Measurable, Makeable, Mutual.

1. 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

2. Good Goals Are Measurable

Vague goals with no measures attached do little to motivate employees. They are nearly meaningless at appraisal time because 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 up that average 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.

3. 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 10 percent improvement nets a higher incentive.

4. Good Goals Are Mutual

Finally, goals should be mutually agreed-on. It’s important to have “buy-in” from the employee, which eliminates the complaint that “I didn’t know the goals or understand them.”

Further, the employee’s insights into the job and how challenging it might be to attain a goal are important input in developing the goals.

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; identify vendors.

Month 4:

Send out Request for Proposal to vendors.

Month 5:

Plan staffing changes and 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 and install; enter test data.

Month 10:

Train; enter full data.

Month 11:

Begin parallel running.

Month 12:

Switch over 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 CED, legal pitfalls in performance appraisals.

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