There’s been much debate among HR folk about the Government’s consultation on ‘protected conversations’ when it comes to staff performance, announced amidst a raft of other legislative changes last week.

The proposal on the table is that employers should be allowed to have frank discussions about poor staff performance with employees, without fear that what’s been said could later come back and bite them in an employment tribunal.

Media headlines have centred around how the plans will make it easier for unscrupulous companies to ‘fire’ people simply because their faces don’t fit or they are no longer required. According to a report in HR Magazine, trade union Unite has already come out strongly against the idea, calling the proposals “a charter for bullies and rogue employers.”

The consultation has, however, been welcomed by the CBI alongside a number of businesses – particularly SME – who in these difficult economic times may feel that they simply cannot afford to carry employees who, for whatever reason, don’t have the skills or motivation needed, or are simply coasting until a better opportunity comes along.

However, the truth is that the devil is in the detail. Unless the new legislation is incredibly clear, which on past performance seems unlikely, we have to ask whether adding yet more complexity to an already difficult topic, is going to be helpful. For smaller businesses, with already overstretched resources, it could in fact make things even more complicated.

We all know that in busy organisations, poor staff performance can be swept under the carpet. It’s a problem of both competence and confidence. Often managers just don’t have the legal knowledge or communication skills to engage in honest but non-confrontational dialogue with their people that stay within the bounds of what is appropriate. They don’t know how to give feedback properly and are frightened to criticise in case the conversation turns nasty and leads to accusations of discrimination or of not following proper procedures.

Much-maligned line managers (who tend to get the blame for everything) are of course not the only ones at fault here. Managing people is not a skill that comes naturally to everyone. Managers often get promoted because of their technical or specialist expertise and suddenly find themselves heading up teams without any experience to fall back on.

Businesses do have a responsibility to make sure their managers are both well versed in the relevant policies and procedures – and also that they are given training in how to handle difficult conversations and manage the performance of their people. Training can be easily accessed and tracked with an HR software like Cezanne HR.

Of course well-run performance management processes can do much to support managers in their efforts to up the skills and productivity of their teams. Sophisticated HR staff performance management software is now available to make the task of collecting feedback, managing appraisals and organising the necessary training much easier for everyone involved.

Expecting managers to get it right without any support, guidance or tools is akin to shoving them off the end of a cliff without a parachute.

It seems a shame that UK plc has had to resort to legislation to tackle under-performance – when perhaps all that’s really needed to raise the bar is the right toolkit and the right training.

What’s your view? Are the proposals a sticking plaster approach or will they help businesses tackle poor staff performance and maximise the effectiveness of their people?

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.