According to press reports, British Airways has found itself in hot water this week, with the introduction of a new performance management system sparking threats of industrial action from staff. Employees are pushing back against the new process, which reportedly includes customer feedback and a ratings system designed to lead to continuous improvements in performance. Union officials, quoted in People Management, have described the scheme as “ill thought-out” and “a human resources fantasy project”.
While not all performance management initiatives hit the headlines in quite such an unfortunate way, it is certainly not uncommon for a new approach or process to be met with a negative reaction from staff.
The root of the problem is usually fear. Employees are concerned that they will be asked to achieve unrealistic targets, will be compared unfairly or unfavourably with staff and that if they don’t measure up, their jobs might be at risk. The very phrase ‘performance management’ can be enough in itself to strike dread into the hearts of staff, who often see it as some kind of draconian measure designed to squeeze the last ounce of effort out of them and make their lives even more stressful.
Of course, good performance management isn’t like that. The challenge for HR is to change negative perceptions and help employees see that at its best, performance management is a great tool to help them fulfil their potential and get the most out of their jobs.
So, if you’re an HR professional planning to introduce a new performance management plan, what can you do to give the project the best chance of landing well?
1. Involve employees from the outset
The people on the front line are the best people to help you create a performance management system that will deliver. They understand the challenges employees face, the barriers they might come up against in their roles and what can realistically be achieved. Try running focus groups to get valuable employee insight and set up a project team that pulls together people at all levels from across the business. Be prepared to genuinely listen to what people have to say and to challenge your assumptions about what will and won’t work. The other advantage of this approach, is that people are much more likely to buy in to something if they feel they have been part of its creation.
2. Get champions on board
Think about where objections are most likely to come from in the business – and don’t assume that everyone will think it’s a good idea. Employees may struggle with the concept of having their performance put under the spotlight if they’ve not been used to it – or they may have reservations about the kind of measures you are planning to put in place. Managers who will have to implement the system will often have concerns too. They may perceive, for example, that it will take up too much time or will pitch them into conflict with their teams. Try and identify where push-back is likely to come from and get key people on board early on. Ask them to help you pilot the system, for example, so they can see the benefits it will bring. If you can create a pool of enthusiastic early adopters, they will soon spread the word and help build widespread support for the initiative.
3. Communicate clearly
Performance management initiatives often fall flat because they haven’t been communicated properly to employees. They are launched with no explanation of the context, or drivers for the project or the benefits it is expected to bring. The result is that people don’t understand what they are being asked to do or why. They will either ignore it or kick up a huge fuss. If you’re planning on introducing a new system, make sure the launch is supported by a carefully thought out communications plan which makes it clear not just what people are being asked to do differently, but also how it fits into the bigger picture and what’s in it for them.
4. Make it easy
Performance management software has advanced enormously in recent years. The latest generation systems are cost-effective, easy to navigate and put the information people need at their fingertips. Automating key parts of the process takes a lot of the strain away from managers. They still have to have the conversations, but the system will alert them when appraisals are due, offer templates for inputting information and will provide a central place where discussions and actions can be recorded and easily accessed. Most systems are highly intuitive and easy-to-use, but don’t expect people to muddle their way through it alone. Provide training so they can get up and running quickly and support for any queries or problems they may have in the early days. It’s important to recognise that many managers struggle with holding performance conversations, so consider offering training to equip them with some tools and techniques and help them feel more confident.
5. Test and refresh
It’s rare to get every aspect of a performance management system right first time. Trial the process in a couple of key areas first so you can pick up any objections or technical issues early on and can stop little niggles turning into major issues. Invite and take on board feedback from users and be prepared to make changes to the process if needed. If you’re using performance management software, a good supplier should always be able to help you tweak the system so that it meets your specific needs.