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Performance management has become a complex and paperwork-heavy process for many companies — but that’s changing. Big companies have been revamping outdated performance processes to improve employee performance and identify issues early through a regular and transparent feedback system with less paperwork.

There’s no doubt that managers see paperwork as a time-consuming and burdensome part of performance management, but it is essential. A HR paper trail is an asset rather than a burden. Meeting notes enable managers to confidently refer back to earlier conversations and encourages managers to state their expectations more clearly.

This reduces ambiguity for the employee. An employee who knows what is expected of them and understands the consequences if they don’t measure up is much more likely to improve their performance. Confidence, clarity and focus are the secret to successfully managing performance issues.

How can managers improve their documentation of employee performance issues and improve both transparency and performance within their teams?

Document employee performance issues immediately

Issues and problems will be identified more promptly where there is a system of regular, weekly check-in meetings between employees and managers. Managers have an opportunity to discuss performance-based issues with employees during these informal meetings and find ways to support employees in tackling any challenges.

Many managers admit to not documenting issues at the time they happen — sometimes waiting for weeks or longer before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. As soon as a manager learns of an issue within their team, it should be documented immediately. There are various tools on the market to make this easy, including feedback apps, but a simple note will suffice.

Note making is an important habit because it not only allows managers to keep track of performance improvements or deterioration, but it means HR are able to access these notes so that they can give their input on a performance management strategy.

Make notes during meetings

Making notes during employee performance meetings is essential. It can be difficult to recall important points which were discussed later on and a series of short, bullet-pointed notes can jog a manager’s memory. These notes can then be typed up and added to the employee’s file in a more detailed, clear way after the conversation.

It can be useful to summarise specific points from the meeting that need to be addressed, including actions to be taken and deadlines, any performance measures that were reviewed, any revisions to employee performance goals, and so on. It may be necessary to implement an employee performance improvement plan depending on the issue at hand, and this should be included in the documentation as well.

All notes should be fact based and not include personal opinions.

Provide documented evidence where possible

If there has been a complaint against an employee, or a particular issue has arisen, the notes should include reference to relevant evidence. This could be a complaint letter/email from a customer, photocopies of time cards showing late arrival to work or a report from a supervisor, for example.

You want to have watertight documentation that outlines the issue and the steps that have been taken to address it. The employee should have a clear understanding of what the issue was and actions to be taken moving forward. You may ask your employees to sign the end of your documented notes to confirm they have understood the issue discussed.

Use performance management software for better transparency

Trends in performance management for 2016 have highlighted the importance of implementing performance management software that is mobile-friendly and supported by online apps. Increasingly companies are moving towards software which can be accessed by managers and employees at any time and from any device.

This software allows for real-time updates and feedback between staff, improving transparency and ensuring the documentation of any discussions held, feedback given, notes made and targets set. General Electric are one of the leading companies who have implemented this, allowing employees to access the app from their own phones and request feedback from managers.

Though it may seem excessive to keep formal notes of performance in a small company where the management style may be quite informal, they can be very useful further down the track, if the employee’s performance doesn’t improve. The manager may ultimately need to dismiss the employee, but this should not be done lightly.

One thing a small business owner can’t afford is time, and if the company is taken to an Employment Tribunal by an employee who thinks they’ve been unfairly treated, the process is extremely time consuming. An employer who can show the Tribunal that they took every reasonable step to help the employee to improve their performance before taking the ultimate step of dismissal will be much more likely to win the case.

Building a performance management process for your company

Every company should develop a performance management process and system that reflects their culture and values.

Performance management is just as important for small businesses as it is for large ones, and finding and developing a process to keep track of and improve employee performance will support your business as it grows.

Managers need to feel comfortable handling employee performance and conduct issues in a way that protects the interests of the company and provides better transparency. This means having clear guidelines on dealing with and documenting employee performance issues, even in small businesses.

By Marc Bishop, managing director of PlusHR and Sharon Crooks, leading HR Consultant. Co-authors of HR for Small Business for Dummies.