The following article is based on a presentation entitled “Improving an Organization’s Productivity” at the HR Network Breakfast in New York City on May 4, 2012. The presenter was John Roulet, a human resources consultant and author of “The Supervision Solution: Manage Performance – Not People.”
The HR Network is sponsored by The Five O’Clock Club and is a vendor-free venue for HR professionals to meet informally, network with one another, and hear discussions of important issues of the day.
According to legend, a customer service representative at L.L. Bean once strapped a canoe to the top of his car and drove over 300 miles from the company’s offices in Maine to a customer in New York who was leaving for a hunting trip the next day and whose canoe shipment had not yet arrived. The story exemplified the high level of customer service that L.L. Bean was known for, backing up all of its sales with a solid guarantee of customer satisfaction.
HR exists to insure the cost-effective employment of people. It’s important for you as well.
It was this level of commitment to its customers that prompted the company to apply for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1988. The awards committee closely considered the nomination, even visiting the company to observe its operations, but declined to give L.L. Bean the award. The committee explained that the company’s customer service guarantee was essentially acting as a crutch, with employees knowing that they could always cure ineffective service with subsequent heroics. But the point was not to have ineffective service in the first place, the committee noted. What the story really highlighted was a breakdown in customer service on the front lines—a botched delivery that had to be made right by the strenuous efforts of someone further up the chain of command.
John Roulet, a human resources consultant who has headed up HR divisions in large companies and has extensively studied organizational management, recently gave a presentation on “Repositioning HR in Your Organization” at a meeting of The Five O’Clock Club HR Network in New York. Referring to the L.L. Bean example, Roulet notes that it illustrates a common misconception about the right way to address problems within an organization. Rather than fixing the underlying problem — in this case, mismanagement at the front-end of the customer engagement process — companies frequently end up making only a cosmetic fix that doesn’t address the larger organizational culture.
Understanding the Concept of Performance and Structuring Goals “Improvement” Is Not a Goal
“I’ve actually heard, ‘Yeah, we achieved our goal. We formed a committee,’” Roulet says, shaking his head.
“Improvement is not a goal,” Roulet continues. Discussions of “improvement” necessarily force us to look backwards, noting where we are now compared to where we were before. Goals, on the contrary, are forward-looking—they help us plot out our future.
Earlier in his career, Roulet notes, he was at a high-level company meeting where management was celebrating the fact that their customer satisfaction indicators had risen from 33 to 37 percent. “They just went from being really horrible to being less horrible,” Roulet points out — not exactly a cause for celebration.
While it is important to focus on goals, instead of merely “improvement,” employees should identify goals that are specific enough in articulating the actual desired outcome. For instance, many people say that their goal is to become rich or — even more specifically — to have made “x” million dollars by the time that they retire. But what is the real goal there? Roulet recalls a man he knew who retired at 72, with a net worth of approximately two million dollars after a long career at Pan Am and a series of prudent investments. But the man was miserable. “He had focused so much on making money,” Roulet says, “that he didn’t have a goal as to how it would be used to enjoy his life. It’s a big difference.”
Don’t manage people.
Manage their performance.
A common organizational goal these days, Roulet says, is to prevent workplace violence. It might also be articulated as “developing a training program on how to prevent workplace violence.” But the real goal is that there is no violence whatsoever in the workplace.
On one occasion as an HR Director, Roulet was approached by the nurse running the organization’s health services department regarding developing a training program to teach female employees to perform breast exams on themselves. Roulet gave his approval but asked the nurse to explain what her real goal was in implementing the training program. First she said that she wanted women to be aware of the dangers of breast cancer — then, after further questioning, she said that she wanted women in the organization to be healthy.
See if you can distinguish between behaviors, outcomes, traits and emotions. Then, assess behaviors, and only behaviors—observable actions—in developing performance appraisals.
“Finally,” Roulet notes, “we got to the point where her real goal was that all of the women in the organization have regular mammograms.” The result was that the nurse moved from simply doing a training program to actually bringing doctors on site to the organization with a mobile mammogram machine. “Just being clear about what she was trying to accomplish,” Roulet continues, “changed her whole way of thinking.” Roulet says that she may have actually saved lives when she changed her goal from simply having a training session to making sure that the women have the exams.
What Performance Is and Is Not.
Performance is Behaviors and Outcomes
Much of Roulet’s approach to performance management relies simply on clarity of expression because how we communicate organizational goals or performance appraisals of employees has a significant impact on outcomes.
“We don’t want to manage people,” Roulet says. “We manage their performance, their behaviors, and their outcomes. Let them be who they are.”
One exercise he uses in training HR professionals has them distinguish between behaviors, traits, and emotions.
“It’s natural for us to assess people based on who we believe they are, their traits and their emotions,” he says. “It’s the only way our species and other species survive. However, in the twenty-first century business environment, it’s an obstruction, and we need to subordinate that instinct to a more objective approach — observing performance.”
“It’s not a performance appraisal unless it measures behaviors and/or outcomes,” Roulet insists. Assessing behaviors and outcomes — observable actions is a must. Roulet conducts language exercises with HR professionals to help them distinguish behaviors from traits and emotions.
Examples of observable behaviors include:
He arrived late.
Examples of language that does not include observable behaviors are:
A punctual girl.
The second list of phrases contains examples of character traits — judgments that have been formed about a person based upon observable behaviors. “However,” Roulet days, “character traits may be ascribed to a person based on behaviors that were observed, but they are just as likely not. We may hear that someone is a Harvard graduate and immediately believe the person is smart. With this categorization our observations and ability to process information about the person is skewed in the direction of the trait characterization.”
Roulet suggests we should be more specific and articulate the exact behaviors of a person, rather than simply make a judgment about them. Thus, instead of describing someone as a “punctual girl,” it is better to say, “she has been on time for work every day this month.”
Evaluate the performance,not the person.
Not only does this more specific method of performance appraisal lead to more effective management, it can also act as protection in a lawsuit.
EpsteinBeckerGreen, a prominent law firm in New York, advises its corporate clients to evaluate the performance, not the person. “Criticism and praise should be related to job performance, not personality,” says Maxine Neuhauser, an associate in the firm’s labor and employment practice, writing in the New Jersey Law Journal. “Avoid comments that attack the person and instead focus on the essential elements or function of the job. For example, an employee is better criticized for not meeting production schedules, customer delivery dates, or deadlines than for ‘not caring’ or having a ‘bad attitude.’”
In Chipollini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., a federal appeals court held that a plaintiff’s suit against his former employer for unlawful termination could go forward, notwithstanding deposition testimony from supervisors that the employee’s performance indicated he had become “uncooperative” and “not adaptive.” The only formal evaluation submitted to the court showed that the employee’s performance had declined from “E” (excellent) to “G” (good). “The proffered reason for discharge is a subjective one,” the court noted in ruling against the company’s summary judgment motion, adding that no examples of the employee’s poor performance had been cited.
Hoffman v. MCA, Inc. is a case that shows how documentation of an employee’s behaviors can protect an employer against a suit for wrongful termination. In Hoffman, the defendant-employer was able to provide documentation of several incidents where the plaintiff-employee’s conduct was unsatisfactory. The documentation described specific behaviors of the employee, including his giving permission to a sales rep to interview with a competitor, his inadequate supervision of a new employee, and complaints from outside business partners about his negative and insulting attitude. Each of these incidents, and others, were documented, leading the court to find that the employer had ample lawful reasons for terminating the plaintiff’s employment.
“To appraise performance,” Roulet notes, “we measure the behaviors and outcomes that were required and compare them to what occurred.”
In addition to structuring goals within an organization and understanding the concept of performance, remember the five main concepts that every HR professional must know and teach:
- the purpose of HR,
- Strategy (thinking competitively),
- Management, and
- Performance Management.
Articulate the exact behaviors of a person, rather than simply make a judgment about them.
“Staff performance,” he concludes, “drives business process performance, customer satisfaction, and financials. HR is responsible for ensuring that the organization has the system and leadership expertise to manage staff performance.”
What You Should Say to Your CEO
First, see the Template for a 1-Year Strategic HR Plan on the following page. Then, say this: “The reason I am here is to assure this organization can cost effectively employ people. What you can expect from me as a deliverable is that this organization will have the systems in place to do that optimally and sustainably. That will define us in terms of our organizational competence.”
For more complete handouts and exercises and to hear the presentation in full, please go to
Click on “The Repositioning of HR in Your Organization.”
1.25 STRATEGIC credits towards HRCI recertification.
You may contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org,
336-342-0306 x332 or 336-405-3739 (cell).