When performance management becomes bullying

Managing employees

It is no longer sufficient to turn up at the workplace to do a 9 – 5 job. The existence of every role is rationalized by cost-conscious businesses and outputs are carefully measured against rigorous standards. At this day and age, businesses can hardly afford to carry a non-performing employee.

So, when cracks start to show in the desired level of performance of an employee, most managers would want to take some steps towards it.  Unfortunately, if those steps create unrealistic expectations of improvement within an unreasonable timeframe without adequate empathy or support, the employee is most likely to perceive this as a form of bullying.

Five Common Triggers to invoke such a reaction from an Employee

  1. When an employee is given no indication what is expected of them either in output or in conduct, nor there is any measurement standard. "My manager never told me that I also had to do ………“
  2. When an existing culture permits poor performance and management doesn't address this fairly and impartially. "Everyone comes in late now and then, what's wrong with that? Why are you picking on me?"
  3. When the employee is given no prior feedback that anything is wrong. “This is how I answered the phone since I started 10 years ago, why is it suddenly not ok?”
  4. When there is no substantive proof and allegation is based on anecdotes or gossip.  “Apparently you were too noisy on this event night in front of our customers. Were you drunk?”
  5. When the employee is given no support or guidance to improve, when clearly they have no capacity to perform. “The job needs advance knowledge in Excel and I never got any training or anyone to show me”

Five Effective Measures You can take to avoid a Bullying Claim

  1. Start managing deficient performance as soon as you notice it, with an informal process, without going into formal warning. This means bringing the problem out in the open with the employee and trying to engage them to achieve improvements
  2. Always back up your allegations of poor performance by hard and verifiable evidence – not on anecdotes, perception or suspicion
  3. Always give the employee a fair and unbiased hearing to defend themselves against the allegations of poor performance
  4. Always create an action plan for improvement with adequate support, guidance and training, if necessary
  5. Monitor the implementation of the improvement plan on a regular basis at least till the time you are reasonably certain that the improvement is permanent and likely to sustain. Back up every conversation, action points and result feedbacks in writing.

When the employee shows signs of improvement, you must go back and give them that feedback. Nothing motivates an individual more than positive reinforcement of their efforts. Many managers make the mistake of stopping the process when there is an initial sign of improvement.

Effective performance management potentially saves a business thousands of dollars. However, most managers and business owners are reluctant to tackle this issue head-on when it starts. It doesn't necessarily have to be unpleasant, harsh or stress-inducing for either the manager or the employee. If you have a staff member who you think is not performing the way they should, and you keep postponing that first meeting - perhaps it's time to start.


Mahua Das

Director at Next Gen Teams

I am an HR professional recently started my own consultancy. My preferred area of work is organisational change management. I live in Sydney, love to travel and also am an avid foodie.

Next Gen Teams

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Neil Steggall

Neil Steggall , Partner at Wardour Capital Partners

I find that poor relationship managers tend to exhibit all five of your triggers and unless helped early are almost impossible to change. School yard bullies are no different from workplace bullies; the cause is usually insecurity, caught early and handled well we can bring an insecure manager around. The key is to create a feeling of respect and interest in each other which flows from the top down. A smile and a kind word given is a wonderfully motivating gift to receive.

John Belchamber

John Belchamber , Owner & Senior Consultant at Invoke Results

Great article thank you Mahua. A ex-colleague of mine used to preach "performance management for good, not evil." By the time anyone enters a performance review, they should already be aware of how their performance compares to expectations. If not, perhaps their manager also needs a review. Onwards Upwards!

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