Getting The Most From Your Staff

Dear JCK readers,

Welcome to JCK’s February 1995 Management Study Center devoted to the topic of Employee Relations. Yukari is delighted to be sponsoring this important subject, the first of four that we will sponsor during 1995.

We at Yukari believe strongly that good employee relations provide the foundation for a successful and healthy business environment. As the American subsidiary of Pilot Corporation, the oldest and largest manufacturer of writing instruments in Japan and also one of the largest suppliers of wedding bands in that market, we have established a strong corporate tradition of innovative employee programs.

We embrace many of the revered Japanese philosophies of management here in the U.S. to enhance the quality of our organization. In fact, our company’s commitment to those philosophies has long been symbolized by an ancient bronze vessel which rests on three legs for support. One leg represents the people who make our products, the second leg represents those who sell our products and the third leg stands for those who use them. All three groups are essential to our success.

Recognizing that product quality and customer satisfaction are paramount in the jewelry industry, maintaining a superior staff is our number one priority. We strive to keep, motivate and promote qualified individuals to provide our customers with high quality products, continuity of service and the utmost professionalism. Our Japanese heritage is evident in our attempts to encourage and reward employee loyalty. We seek to develop and improve our staff through training and schooling on an ongoing basis. We motivate with coaching and praise while acknowledging superior performance with promotion and additional responsibility.

Please take the time to read this important Management Study Center section. Hopefully you, too, will incorporate some of these practices into your own business. Among the key points the section makes are the following:

· The critical necessity of performance reviews. Although there are some managers who regard them as a waste of time, this section shows that to the contrary, these evaluations can help improve employee performance and clarify employer expectations.

· The wisdom of cooperative coaching. Cooperative coaching involves working closely with employees to help them improve performance. This technique can be used on both marginal and high quality individuals to bring out the best in each. But there are some guidelines you should know, ones that will help ensure that your coaching is successful.

All of us here at Yukari hope that you enjoy and learn from this special mangement feature. Education is the key to our industry’s continued health and growth. To that, we are committed, both as a company and as a member of the jewelry industry.

Best wishes.

Sincerely,

Florence M. Hansen

National Sales Manager

Yukari

Trumbull, CT

DO YOUR EMPLOYEES EXCEL?

Store management includes many key aspects – from buying and pricing merchandise to budgeting. But getting the most from employees is the one many jewelers find the hardest to do well

by Deborah Holmes, managing editor; illustrations by Wally Neibart

Employee relations.

They’re one of the most important – and troublesome – management issues facing jewelry store owners. After all, employees are the ones doing the work, making the sales, pleasing the customers. Or not.

That’s why good employee relations can mean success, while bad ones can lead to a date in bankruptcy court.

But what are good employee relations and how can you maintain them – especially when, as in many jewelry stores, employees are “just like family”?

There are some keys. You might call them the 3 Cs:

· Communication.

You know what you want your employees to do. But do they? You know when you’re happy – or unhappy – with their performance. But do they?

· Consistency.

Do you judge all employees by the same standard all the time? Or do you let one employee do something – come in late, use the telephone for personal calls, skip out on housekeeping chores – for which you reprimand others?

· Control.

Is the owner or manager really in charge in your store or does the crew run the ship? Are there clear rules and lines of authority?

Most managers want their employees to like them. And when staffs are relatively small, as they are in most jewelry stores, it’s important that people get along with each other. Yet being too friendly with subordinates makes it hard for the boss to maintain discipline and to correct inappropriate behavior. What’s a manager to do?

JCK turned to Professional Training Associates Inc., publisher of Practical Supervision, for some answers. This monthly newsletter offers non-technical, often simply common sense advice – sometimes based on synopses of management books – on a variety of problems. How can you supervise one worker you dislike or review another who’s a friend? How should you handle suspected substance abuse? How do you make long-time employees more productive? How should you respond to charges of sexual harassment or racial bias?

The following edition of the JCK Management Study Center features excerpts and adaptations of articles from Practical Supervision. Some focus on areas of employee supervision such as performance reviews. Others present scenarios involving problem employees. The advice given often includes no right or wrong answers. Instead, it shows how to apply the keys listed above, especially the first one – communication.

THE MANAGEMENT STUDY CENTER REPORTS

This article on getting the most from employees kicks off the second year for the JCK Management Study Center, a series of quarterly reports which began in February 1994. Additional reports will appear in the June, August and October 1995 issues.

Like other reports in the series, this one concludes with an open-book quiz (see page 155). If you want to answer the questions, please photocopy your reply and send it with your name, store name and address to, “JCK Management Study Center, 1 Chilton Way, Radnor, Pa. 19089.” Your replies to the current quiz should be postmarked no later than March 15, 1995. At the end of the year, the scores of those who have participated in all four of the 1995 tests will be tallied and those with correct answers to 90% or more of the questions will receive a Certificate of Completion co-signed by JCK and the Jewelers Education Foundation of the American Gem Society. JEF is cooperating in the preparation of some of these reports.

The information in this article was condensed and adapted from Practical Supervision, a monthly news-letter designed to help supervisors become better, more consistent communicators. Each eight-page issue offers down-to-earth advice and proven techniques for immediate use. A 12-month, single-issue subscription is $48; multiple-copy discounts are available. For information, contact Professional Training Associates Inc., 210 Commerce Blvd., Round Rock Tex. 78664-2189; (512) 255-6006, fax (512) 255-7532. Call toll-free (800) 424-2112 to request a free sample copy.

PERFORMANCE REVIEWS

Most managers should welcome the chance to strengthen relationships with employees on a regular basis. That’s exactly what performance reviews can do. Yet many bosses regard formal evaluations as a waste of time, a source of stress or both.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In Supervisor’s Survival Kit, author Elwood N. Chapman tells how to turn reviews to everyone’s advantage by focusing on the benefits of the process.

Start your positive approach by reviewing the potential payoffs for everyone involved.

Employees profit because reviews clarify what is expected of them and ensure their achievements are recognized. Reviews also identify ways to strengthen any weak areas and provide a forum for expressing and resolving concerns.

The company benefits because reviews identify employees worthy of reward or counseling, establish a basis for raises and promotions and allow fairer, more uniform treatment of employees.

Managers profit because reviews offer an opportunity to build better relationships with employees and help them to improve productivity. Proper reviews also make it easier for outstanding employees to get raises and promotions.

No matter what review system you use, it’s crucial to give the process the time and energy it deserves. Employees expect a thorough, honest evaluation and will feel cheated if you seem too busy to consider their work carefully. Even a poor system can produce positive results if you take the process seriously and show employees you really care about what they do (and don’t do).

Many managers are sensitive about rating their people on a generalized standard (shows initiative) or a numerical scale (rate from 1 to 5). It’s hard to pigeonhole people, especially if you must give an unsatisfactory rating to someone you like. Use these tips to decide on ratings that accurately reflect performance:

· Appraise work, not personality. Use objective data such as sales figures, attendance records and customer calls.

· Evaluate according to actual contributions, not potential.

· Base judgment on typical performance – not one good or bad stretch during the period under review.

· Keep various standards separate, rather than allow poor or excellent performance in one area to color your rating in all areas.

· Don’t try to save time by simply selecting the mid-range on all factors.

· If you must give an unsatisfactory rating, have all the facts at your disposal, discuss the problem with the employee, inform your boss (if you have one) of the decision and keep an open mind about the possibility of improvement.

· Discuss ratings openly with the employee. Explain your position and defend it – if necessary. Make it plain that you’re interested in helping everyone to succeed.

To make the review process work, you must show employees you believe their work is worthy of thoughtful discussion. Chapman suggests you:

· Choose a time when you and the employee can concentrate on the discussion – preferably not right before lunch, at the end of the day or during peak sales hours.

· Separate salary reviews from performance reviews so that concerns about money and benefits don’t distract attention from performance issues.

· Let employees do most of the talking and be sure to listen closely to their point of view.

· Make descriptive, specific and non-judgmental statements about performance.

· Reinforce positives while seeking ways to improve below-standard performance.

· Encourage the employee to contribute ideas on how to improve.

· Emphasize future goals and how to reach them rather than dwell on past activities.

· Discuss longer-range career plans, helping employees to consider their progress toward personal goals and what they might do to reach them more quickly.

Always follow up by giving praise or coaching on performance between reviews. The more frequently you communicate with an employee about performance, the easier reviews will become, because you’ll both have a pretty good idea of where you stand.

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

Mark, one of your branch store managers, is frustrated. His sales associates just can’t seem to meet their goals. He thinks they could do so easily if only they’d try some of his sales techniques. He’s held several staff meetings to explain what he wants, but his ideas don’t seem to catch on. Why can’t his staff get excited about his way of doing things?

Mark has good ideas and good employees; why isn’t he getting the performance he wants? The answer is a lack of positive reinforcement – encouraging desirable behavior by immediately rewarding it. If Mark’s sales associates are on commission, he may think that’s reward enough. After all, if they sell something, they’ll make more money. But what about efforts that don’t result in immediate sales – such as patience with a tedious but occasionally good customer no one likes or special attention to keeping the store tidy during busy times? Don’t they deserve rewards as well?

Whether you reward good performance with a bonus, a pat on the back or some other recognition, positive reinforcement helps employees to understand what kinds of behavior are desirable and valued in your store. You get what you want and so do your employees. Here are some tips:

· Emphasize the positive, avoid the negative. Everyone prefers cheers to jeers. Positive reinforcement helps to build employees’ self-confidence and makes them more self-motivated. Negative reactions (criticism or punishment) motivate them to avoid unpleasant results; they may decrease the chance of undesirable behavior, but they won’t encourage people to excel.

When an employee has a performance problem, deal with it quickly, then look for the first chance to recognize improvement. If you have trouble spotting positive performance, start by assuming employees are working toward the same goals you are. Then consciously look for progress toward those goals. Mark’s main goal is to boost sales, so he should keep an eye out for anything that will help. When Sally shows a birthstone list to a reluctant customer, for example, he can say, “That was a good idea. Not everyone born in December likes turquoise, but zircon comes in so many nice colors! I think she might want to buy one.”

· Act promptly. The shorter the gap between performance and reward, the stronger the reinforcement. Employees learn quickly what kinds of performance are praised or rewarded and start to repeat that performance as soon as possible. Mark can bolster his sales associates’ morale by congratulating them when they follow suggested techniques. Thus, Joe would get a pat on the back when he says, “I know you’re not looking for a pendant today, Mrs. Jones, but let me show you a stunning designer piece that just came in this morning.”

· Make it personal. While recognizing group performance is good, each individual also wants to know that what he/she does is important and appreciated. Start each week by making a list of your employees. As soon as you see one do something that merits recognition, make a note beside the person’s name. Add a big check-mark as soon as you congratulate them (hopefully right away). If some names don’t have a check mark by Friday morning, pay special attention to these people. Find some contribution each has made and say how much you appreciate it.

· Be specific. Reinforce specific, observable actions so employees know exactly what behavior is being rewarded. Praising Sally for “good work” certainly doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t explain what was good about it so she can do it again.

· Be imaginative. There are endless ways to provide positive reinforcement. Being creative in your recognition can give it greater impact. Start an Employee of the Week program and announce the winner at your sales meetings. Give someone an unscheduled afternoon off or give a gift certificate to take his/her family out for pizza. Write a letter thanking a worker for extra effort and send a copy to his spouse. Don’t get so carried away, however, that you forget one of the most basic forms of positive reinforcement – a simple “thank you.” It’s a powerful phrase, and it doesn’t wear out with frequent use.

· Keep it up. Providing positive reinforcement is like other management skills – the more you do it, the easier it gets. To stay on track, ask yourself at least once a week:

– “When was the last time I gave each of my employees positive reinforcement?

– “Did I tell each person exactly what he did right?

– “Did I thank the person and encourage her to continue the good performance?

– “Is someone doing something right now that I can recognize?”

Employees who are rewarded frequently for good performance soon will perform at that level (or better) all the time. And that makes you look good.

FRIENDLY PERSUASION

Several months ago, you became manager of the store where you’ve worked for five years. Now it’s time for performance appraisals of sales associates and you don’t know what to do. These people are your friends. How can you criticize them – especially Mary, who’s always been so nice but definitely needs some improvement?

Look at the review process as a way to help Mary meet her potential. Sometimes supervisors are afraid to talk about the need for change with co-workers who are friends because they don’t want to create tension that could ruin the friendship. But if you already have a good flow of communication, that makes it easier to use a constructive performance review process. You just need to let Mary know the review is supposed to help her.

Explain in advance that you want to cover four points: how well Mary can and does do the job, how well she can and does cooperate with others, the reasons for any current or foreseeable differences between planned and actual performance and anything else she wants to discuss. Remember that performance reviews should be a dialogue.

You don’t want to spend the session discussing weekend plans, so write the questions you want to explore and give Mary a copy ahead of time. Focus more than half the discussion on the future, dividing the rest between the past and present. Be sure to present solid examples of any points. Don’t assume Mary knows what you’re talking about just because you’re friends. If you think she’s not spending enough time with customers, describe some specific instances and use those examples to set some fresh goals.

Also ask Mary how she thinks you can help her do better. You could be surprised at her answers. As a friend, she may feel free to offer criticism or a suggestion for ways to do things differently – and her ideas may be valid. Always allow time for and encourage this input.

Remember, too, that some of the salespeople may not be your friends. Be sure to follow the same review procedures, even if you find them harder to communicate with. That’s the best way to avoid favoritism and build better relationships with your entire team.

FIGHTING CHANGE

Ed, your new store manager, is taking on a staff of seasoned salespeople. He’s suggested some procedural changes that he feels will make everyone more productive, but finds after several weeks that nothing has happened. After specifically asking them to use a new take-in form that he feels will reduce errors, he finds they discussed it among themselves and decided to stick with the old form. Their resistance annoys him, and he wonders if he should call a meeting to lay down the law.

Workers who are “set in their ways” pose a special challenge. One key to guiding more experienced workers is to strike a balance between your need to get new ideas up and running quickly and their need to adjust to change. Consider these ideas.

· Allow plenty of lead time. Give salespeople as much notice as possible about coming changes so they can prepare mentally. By simply announcing changes he wanted and expecting them to happen, Ed set himself up for resistance. Instead, he could have let the staff know he was thinking about changing take-in procedures, described what he had in mind and when it would happen, then asked for input.

· Encourage enthusiasm and ownership. Present new procedures or ideas you have in mind and explain their purpose in practical terms. When you can show employees how they and the store will benefit, they’ll be more willing to invest their energy in learning new work habits. Let the staff suggest ways to introduce new procedures. Workers who help to plan changes feel more empowered.

· Introduce a new skill or concept in steps. If the new approach is complex, show the whole procedure and then present it in digestible pieces. Have employees practice the first step before moving on to the next one. And blend the old with the new. Look for ways to phase in changes so employees don’t have to drop one thing and start something totally new overnight. Dumping changes on people and cutting them off from what’s familiar heightens anxiety and resistance.

· Win over group leaders. If you face group resistance, try to get commitments from the informal leaders of the group, who then may influence other staff members in a positive manner.

· Avoid change just for the sake of change. Make sure the new things you expect workers to do are really better than current practices. If an experienced worker is digging in his heels over a change, listen carefully, because he may be right. Just because it’s your idea doesn’t mean it’s better.

A MATTER OF DISCIPLINE

You’ve tried coaching, positive reinforcement and feedback. But Gary, who checks incoming merchandise, remains a problem. You’re sure he knows how to do the work, but he keeps making mistakes – on recording stock numbers, checking quality, updating computer files – and his mistakes are costing you money. You’re ready to scream. Is there something more constructive you can do?

It’s natural to feel like lashing out at problem employees. But as V. Clayton Sherman notes in From Losers to Winners, emotional reactions are usually futile, and punishment is generally ineffective in getting employees to change.

When a serious performance problem develops, first think for a moment what “discipline” really means. The word comes from “disciple,” or follower. And that’s what discipline should create: a productive worker on the right path.

Positive discipline doesn’t mean getting mad, regarding Gary as an enemy or figuring out how to get even with him. Instead, you must let him know what’s expected, help him do it and let him judge for himself the consequences of continuing in the wrong direction.

Analyze performance: Write down exactly what the problem is. Don’t settle for “sloppy work” or “bad attitude”; describe specific errors or incidents.

Next, figure out what these mistakes are costing the store. Be as specific as possible; this will help the employee to see the problem really exists. In Gary’s case, this probably is easy. Improper computer inventory records may have caused you to order items you didn’t need or run short of ones you did; poor quality control may have produced major problems with a customer.

(If you can’t assign a cost – if all you can say is that something about the employee annoys you – then discipline, positive or otherwise, isn’t appropriate. You can’t correct every annoying trait of every employee. It’s easier to learn to live with it.)

Finally, analyze your own supervisory performance. Could you do more to help Gary succeed? Have you made your expectations clear, provided enough training and noted mistakes promptly? Try not to feel defensive while doing this self-analysis. If you come up with something new to try, it could make things easier for you and Gary.

Try counseling: In a private session, give Gary some good news along with the bad. Tell him what he’s doing right (there must be something), then spell out just what needs to be improved. Use the specifics you’ve gathered to drive home your points. It’s OK to let your feelings about his performance show, as long as you don’t become vindictive or abusive.

Ask Gary for his side of the story and for suggestions on how to overcome whatever obstacles are blocking his performance. Tell him you’re confident he can do better and that you’ll do all you can to help.

The more specifically you describe the problem and the more genuinely you show your support, the more likely he’ll be able to turn around his performance. Protect his sense of dignity and let him leave the meeting with a clear idea of both what needs to be done and his ability to do it.

Keep counseling sessions short and to the point. And hold them as soon as possible after a problem appears, before too much damage is done.

Documentation: While you should document every employee’s performance, it’s especially important with a problem employee such as Gary. If he continues to perform below expectations and you need to take more forceful steps, you’ll want proof. And if further discipline should provoke a lawsuit, you’ll need to be able to prove you were paying equally close attention to all of your workers, not just picking on this one.

On the plus side, documentation is a big help in objectively analyzing a problem and tracking the progress employees make after coaching.

Some alternatives: If substandard performance continues, consider some alternatives.

· Training. Does Gary really know what he’s doing? Maybe he’s not comfortable with the computer or lacks the product knowledge needed for proper quality control.

· Referral. If you suspect personal problems are affecting Gary’s work, refer him to your company’s employee assistance program, if you have one, or to a community resource.

· Restructure the job – perhaps it’s simply too demanding. Consider splitting up the duties or reassigning Gary to a job he can perform with success.

· Warning. Tell Gary how much time he has to shape up and what will happen if he meets the deadline – or doesn’t.

Finally, offer plenty of feedback. Be sure Gary knows how important it is that his work improve right away. Hold daily or weekly reviews to monitor progress, or lack of it.

If all this fails and you must let Gary go, you’ll know you have done everything possible to help him turn things around and that your thorough documentation will cover your legal liabilities. Now you’re free to hire someone more capable, more willing or both.

THE OLDER WORKER

Your new manager is taking on a staff that includes two long-time salespeople who are well into their 60s. He’s young and has never supervised people so much older. What problems might this cause?

Older workers often are highly motivated to succeed and take a lot of pride in their work. They may bring a wealth of knowledge to the job and require less supervision than less-experienced workers. They are more frequently on time, are more reliable and take fewer days off due to personal problems and child-care emergencies than do younger workers.

However, some are less comfortable with new technologies or have more trouble changing to new work methods. Some have less physical agility and strength, but don’t want to admit it. Some no longer operate at their peak of productivity, yet resent any sign that others are becoming more capable than they. And some dislike working for someone much younger.

You should understand these differences and tailor your approach to accommodate or capitalize on them. Here are six tips:

1. Appreciate older workers’ attributes. Take time to understand and benefit from their mind-set and culture.

2. Build a solid professional relationship. Show a warm, friendly attitude that respects their experiences and contributions.

3. Ask for their input. This not only makes them feel needed, but also gives you the benefit of their experience.

4. Help them to anticipate changes that will affect them. Provide as much advance notice as possible of any shift in schedule, procedures, etc.

5. Give them time to adjust. If you would expect a typical employee to take a month or two to get used to your new computer system, factor in extra time and training for the older worker.

6. Set up teams with their needs in mind. An older employee might view a gung-ho new salesperson as a threat. But if you make the elder a mentor, the pair may function more effectively than either could alone.

COOPERATIVE COACHING

Coaching is a way to help employees make more of their abilities. As a coach, you help employees to develop and carry out an improvement plan, drawing on their own ideas and your observations of their performance, your understanding of the job and your skill in providing feedback.

Coaching is not directing. Managers who see a need for improvement often think how they would do the job better themselves – and then try to get employees to do it that way. That can frustrate everyone because employees tend to do things their way.

Instead of fighting that tendency, make the most of it. These tips, based on Coaching and Counseling by Marianne Minors, show how.

When to coach: Collaborative coaching works when an employee wants or needs to do better and when there’s more than one way to do so. It’s not the best way to handle infringements of basic work rules. Thus, if Meghan, your new sales associate, arrives late three times a week, you need to tell her exactly what acceptable attendance is, then help her figure out a way to get to work on time. Nor is coaching the right approach for employees whose personal problems interfere with their work; they need counseling.

But what if Meghan is having problems meeting her goal of more add-on sales. Before you talk to her, think through the situation in detail, making notes you can use later. The more you know about what’s causing the problem, and the more clearly you can explain why she needs to improve, the more you can help her.

Now you’re ready to coach. Here’s how:

· Put Meghan at ease. Don’t assign blame or give the impression you think she’s a poor salesperson. Let her know the purpose of the meeting is to help her do better.

· Pinpoint the problem. Before you start creating solutions, be sure you and Meghan agree on what’s wrong. It may come as a surprise to some employees that their performance is lacking – especially if you haven’t set specific goals. (Improving add-on ratio sounds like a good goal, but it’s vague. Going from one add-on per 10 sales to two is a better goal.)

Some employees will tell you a different problem is more important than the one you want to talk about. “I know I’m not closing enough add-ons,” Meghan may say. “But that’s because we’re so busy sometimes that I just can’t spend enough time with each customer.” You may have to take separate action to resolve issues employees bring up.

· Once you agree there’s a problem, seek the employee’s ideas about improvements – and be willing to put them into practice. It’s quite possible that Meghan’s complaint about being too busy is valid. Can you rearrange schedules or hire some part-time help to relieve the pressure?

Perhaps Meghan feels she also needs to know more about the products she’s selling. Are you willing to pay for – and give her some time to work on – programs such as a home-study course from the Gemological Institute of America?

You, as a supersalesman, may be tempted to insist Meghan try your techniques. But she probably knows her skills and limitations better than you do and will be more comfortable with her own approach. You can make suggestions, but be sure to leave at least some recognizable part of the plan the way the employee suggested it.

· Agree on appropriate actions. Make sure you both understand what’s supposed to happen next. Schedule a follow-up meeting and take any support actions you agreed on. Meghan may lose her enthusiasm for studying if she finds you’ve done nothing about the understaffing problem. After a coaching session, make a special effort to praise signs of improvement. Most employees will do their best to get things right, and your support will reinforce the behavior. If there are no signs of improvement, however, don’t let the situation deteriorate. Let Meghan know you’re still rooting for her to do better. Ask what part of the plan isn’t working and put your heads together to develop a better approach.

Remember that coaching is more about seeking out options than about laying down the law. By focusing on helping employees to develop their own ideas, you can use coaching in many situations – not just when performance needs to be corrected. You can coach good performers who want to do even better or help staff members adjust to changes in policies and procedures.

`BUT I DON’T LIKE HER!’

You have a problem. Mary, a long-long employee, constantly monopolizes staff meetings, offers opinions and suggestions quite unrelated to the topics being discussed and comments on other people’s statements. Mary may be trying to usurp your authority or just wasting valuable time in needless chatter. But maybe you dislike Mary speaking up so much because you simply don’t like her. How can you tell the difference?

Before you say or do anything, spend a few quiet moments considering what really bothers you about Mary’s behavior. Be honest with yourself. Then plan to deal with this real issue, whatever it is.

Before you take action, however, find out how the other sales associates view Mary’s behavior. If others are upset or dissatisfied, you may have good reason to tackle the problem. If they’re not – or even think Mary is making valuable contributions – you should reevaluate whether your personal feelings are affecting your judgment.

Give yourself the “friend or foe” test. Ask yourself, “Would I feel this way if a friend were doing the same thing?” If you can honestly say yes, then put your remedial plan into action. But if you realize you’d tolerate the same behavior from Joe, your ace salesman, you can be pretty sure you’re upset with Mary rather than her actions. Avoid using your management position to strike at purely personal targets.

DEMYSTIFYING FEEDBACK

Feedback seems simple. It’s defined as communication that lets employees know how well they’re doing and what they can do to improve. To work best, it should be timely, specific and frequent.

But if it’s really that simple, why are so many people still in the dark about what their bosses think of their work? The reason is that while feedback is simple, it’s not easy. The wrong ways of doing it often feel right. Learning to give people helpful information about their performance takes experience and persistence. This look at some common feedback errors should help you to improve your efforts.

Feedback in disguise: Poor feedback often seems so much like the real thing that you look elsewhere for the cause of disappointing results. Be ready to spot the following imposters:

· Describing “your way.” Even if your way of closing a sale is very good, explaining it to Sally Salesperson isn’t feedback. It doesn’t tell her what you think of her performance. Instead of describing how you’d do it, tell Sally specifically what you’ve seen her do and what you’d like to see her do instead.

· Making assumptions. Don’t assume you already know how well people perform. If you assume Joe is always excellent, Sally is average and Meghan is a problem, you’ll find it hard to make fresh observations about their work. But if you approach each as the changeable individual he/she is, you’ll be able to provide feedback on a wider range of triumphs and troubles.

· Keeping it to yourself. Many supervisors avoid feedback because they fear employees will react negatively. Think instead how you’ll behave if you store up too many concerns about performance. Eventually, you’ll lose patience and lash out at Meghan or give up on her. Meanwhile, she’ll have had no opportunity to address your concerns.

· Restricting feedback to friends. Some managers give feedback only to those with whom they’re comfortable. It’s unfair to keep only those you like informed, and it’s even worse to give feedback about employees you don’t like to other people. Good feedback doesn’t require a lot of social smoothing. You can share specific observations with little fanfare. “I like how you’re answering the phone, Sally.” That’s all there is to it. Or if you don’t approve of her method: “I’d like you to make sure you use the phone greeting we agreed on, Sally.” Make sure the message gets through, then move on. Let Sally’s mother worry about her personality; you stick to the specifics of her performance.

· Talking without being heard. Giving feedback in the wrong setting is like having a picnic in the rain. Look for a time and place where employees can understand your comments. Sooner is generally better, but be sure to take people aside to deliver negative feedback. If you’re talking to Sally at the sales counter, make sure she has a moment free to concentrate and respond.

Make good feedback better: Once you recognize the mistakes above, it’s easier to deliver genuine feedback. Here’s how:

· Offer factual information. Don’t tell Sally her performance is “good” or “bad.” Offer objective data about her performance, then let her draw her own conclusions. When workers see for themselves the need to improve, they’re often more motivated to change than when told what to do. And when employees can see they’re headed in the right direction, they’re usually enthusiastic about continuing. For example, don’t tell Sally, “You’re 20% below target.” Instead say, “You were supposed to make 10 prospecting calls to customers this month, but you made only eight.” Once Sally sees the obvious shortfall, you can move on to whatever planning or coaching is needed to help her meet her goal next month. If she exceeds the goal, be sure to recognize that as well.

· Capitalize on mistakes. Perfection is great; obviously, you want everyone to meet their goals. But if people don’t feel comfortable discussing their problems in reaching those goals, you’ll never know where they really need feedback the most. To help them feel comfortable, handle their mistakes gracefully. Also be up front about your own fallibility; talk with employees about your own problems and challenges occasionally.

· Be creative. One of the hardest things about giving effective feedback is finding fresh ways to note top performance. “Nice” and “good” get pretty tired after a while. The thesaurus is an underrated management tool. A quick glance under “good” in a Pocket Roget’s offers “splendid,” “stupendous” and “superb” – each a worthy change of pace from more ordinary terms. Listen for ways others express their appreciation. Build a collection of unusual ways to show you value people’s efforts.

· Find out what works in your store. Be sure the feedback you offer is relevant to your employees’ needs. Be flexible about meeting their preferences for spoken or written comments.

Look at feedback as an ongoing process. It’s essential to each worker’s continuous growth – which will include successes and setbacks. So don’t think of either positive or negative feedback as the last word on performance. Instead, use it to keep people moving forward.

FEELING HARASSED

Sally claims that Joe has been sexually harassing her. This is a sensitive situation; it’s vital that you know what to do to protect Sally’s rights and maintain a productive work environment. Here’s what Donald H. Weiss suggests in Fair, Square and Legal: Safe Hiring, Managing and Firing Practices to Keep You and Your Company Out of Court:

1. Ask Sally to tell you what happened. Accept complaints at face value without passing judgment. Avoid putting words into her mouth. The less you color the story with your own perceptions, the better able you’ll be to understand the situation.

2. Get specifics. Focus on facts, not motives. Encourage Sally to give you as much objective information as possible. Key facts include the frequency of the alleged harassment, how long it’s been going on and what she has done to let Joe know his behavior is offensive and should stop.

3. Establish the next steps. Without asking leading questions, find out what Sally wants you to do about her complaint. Ask for permission to conduct a thorough investigation. If she voices a fear of reprisal, assure her that your company won’t permit it. Then contact your boss, your personnel department or your lawyer to determine how the investigation should proceed.

Being prepared to deal with harassment complaints should help you to resolve them appropriately. It’s better to avoid them altogether, however. Make it clear to everyone in your store you will not tolerate harassment of any kind and, if you’re not the boss, encourage whoever is to issue a policy statement to that effect.

NO JOKING

As the work force grows more diverse, the ability to get along with people from different backgrounds becomes ever more crucial. Some employees unfortunately lack this skill. It’s your job as a manager to maintain a positive work environment and to ensure that no one behaves in a way that diminishes a sense of mutual respect and dignity.

That’s what insensitive racial remarks do. Whether innocent-seeming jokes, repetitions of racial stereotypes or ugly epithets, comments made at the expense of someone’s individuality are inappropriate on the job. Such statements are morally wrong and result in lower morale, higher turnover and costly lawsuits.

If an employee makes a racially insensitive remark, don’t laugh weakly or pretend you didn’t hear. You must respond forcefully. Here’s how:

1. Act immediately. The moment you hear a thoughtless or malicious racial comment, ask to speak privately with the employee who made it. Any delay implies that the behavior is acceptable.

2. Be direct. State that you absolutely will not stand for offensive racial remarks and be sure the employee understands what is considered offensive. It’s usually OK for employees to discuss coworkers’ job-related actions, but it’s not OK to demean them because of race.

3. Be sure your company has a policy for dealing with repeated offenses and tell the worker exactly what it is.

4. Explain the benefits of change. Aside from staying out of trouble, the employee will contribute to a more comfortable, productive environment. Tell him you’re confident he can avoid making the mistake again and that you expect and appreciate his cooperation.

5. Ask for agreement. Don’t end the conversation until the employee signals that he’s aware of the problem and willing to change.

6. Follow up. Look for signs of change and praise them. These might include increased cooperation between the previously insensitive employee and coworkers. Remember that behavioral change takes time.

AN `I DON’T LIKE YOUR ATTITUDE’ ADJUSTMENT

Do your comments during performance appraisals always hit the mark? Or do employees sometimes get a funny look on their faces after you’ve made what you thought was a valid remark? Check your appraisal communication skills by taking this quick quiz, based on Productive Performance Appraisals by Randi Toler Sachs. Which of the following sound like constructive comments?

1. Why don’t you follow the path Susan took? She started out like you and now she’s doing great!

2. You’re doing just fine – I can’t complain at all. Any comments on your end?

3. That goal simply isn’t realistic.

4. Your performance this quarter has really let me down.

5. Sorry to keep you waiting; that was an important call.

6. I wish I could agree that you’ve met all your deadlines, but these records indicate otherwise.

7. You need to speak to your coworkers with more respect.

8. I know you’ve got the ability. Why do you think you’re having so much trouble meeting goals?

Comments 1-5 are shaky at best. The first talks about another worker, which is irrelevant to the employee under review. The second cuts off discussion too quickly. The third discourages the employee from participating in goal-setting. The fourth makes the issue personal, not performance-based. And the fifth shows disregard for the importance of the discussion.

Comments 6-8 get solid points across. The sixth gives documented feedback. The seventh suggests a constructive change. And the eighth gives workers a chance to explain themselves.

THE HIV EMPLOYEE

Gary just told you the rumor. Apparently Linda, your secretary, was worried about a blood transfusion she had some years ago. She finally got up the nerve to be tested for HIV, and Gary told you the results were positive. How should you handle the situation?

As AIDS and the HIV virus that cause it continue to spread, more and more managers must confront this problem, which requires more than sympathy. You should know your employees’ rights and your obligations before it happens.

· Provide education. Experts agree that if you’re waiting for an employee to announce having HIV, you’ve waited far too long to take positive action. Contact a local AIDS service (check the telephone book or ask your state health department) for help in educating your employees about AIDS in the workplace. Learning the facts – such as the extreme unlikelihood of infection in normal working conditions – can reduce people’s anxieties and enhance their ability to function productively if a fellow worker does get the virus. Develop a company policy on disability caused by disease so the same rules apply to everyone – whether they’re disabled by a stroke, a heart attack or HIV. (If you’re not the boss, encourage your superiors to do this.)

· Know the law. People with HIV are protected from job discrimination under numerous federal, state and local laws. Their rights are strengthened further by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which went into effect for most organizations in July 1992. Basically, the law states that if a person can perform the essential functions of a job, with or without reasonable accommodation, then he or she may not be discriminated against on the basis of disability. In essence, you must treat people with HIV the same way you treat other employees and be ready to make the same kind of accommodations you would make for someone injured in an automobile accident or diagnosed with any other serious illness.

· Suit your actions to the situation. Talk to Linda about her having HIV only if she brings it to your attention. Meanwhile, tell Gary to stop spreading the news; such gossip can destroy a coworker’s reputation. And even if the information turns out to be true, Gary could be legally accountable for violating Linda’s privacy if he talks about her HIV status without her approval.

· Determine the employee’s needs. If Linda does give you the news, ask her what she wants you to do. Many people with HIV have no symptoms and require only your understanding that they’re going through a difficult time. Others may require flexible scheduling to receive treatment. Treat requests for HIV accommodation as you would those for any other disability.

· Maintain confidentiality. You must protect the privacy of any employee who confides in you about having the HIV virus. You may be held liable for public disclosure if you notify coworkers, your personnel department or your company’s insurer.

If Linda requires more accommodation than you can authorize, get her permission to discuss the situation with your boss. Let her decide how many people she’s willing to inform of her situation.

Your responsibility to an employee with HIV or AIDS is to do exactly what you would for all other employees: respect their rights, protect their privacy and give them all the help they need to succeed.

(Information provided by the American Bar Association’s AIDS Coordination Project in Washington, D.C.; the National Lawyers’ Guild AIDS Network in San Francisco; and the AIDS Legal Resource Project, the Capital Area AIDS Legal Project and Advocacy Inc., all in Austin, Tex.)

THE DRIFTING WORKER

Frank just seems to float along, going wherever the work flow takes him, making few decisions and expending little energy. He usually does what he’s told, but not much else. Maybe that’s OK. But you’d probably prefer that he be as involved and productive as possible. And he’d probably be happier and work better if inspired to do his best. Here’s how to get him on the move.

Put Frank at ease. Let him know you appreciate the work he’s doing, but think he might enjoy the satisfaction of using and developing more of his abilities. Say you’d like to help him, if he’s interested. If Frank doesn’t seem keen to explore the subject, drop it for the time being – but let him know you’d be glad to discuss it further when he’s ready. The odds are he’ll follow up. If he doesn’t, try again.

Clarify goals. Once Frank shows an interest in gaining direction, help him to decide where he wants to go. Ask what he’d like to do that he’s not doing now. Draw out his opinions about what he likes and dislikes about the current situation and how he might want to change it.

Make a plan. Look together for ways Frank can grow in your business. Plan steps that would give him a good chance of early success. Determine actions and target dates for achieving his priorities.

Follow up. Keep Frank’s momentum going by supporting his efforts and tracking his progress. Give feedback that relates to his new goals. Encourage signs of greater interest and motivation, and provide challenges to keep him from drifting again.

BUILDING CONFIDENCE

You’d love to take a vacation, but you’re scared to leave the store. Everything seemed to fall apart the last time you were away at a jewelry show. Can’t anybody around here take charge?

If the answer is no, the problem may be lack of confidence, not ability. Managers have more power than anyone else to build or destroy employees’ self-confidence. You assign their work, tell them how they’re doing and evaluate the quality of their accomplishments. If in the process you can enhance their confidence in their own abilities, you’ll build a team that’s ready to take on any task and do it well.

Try these confidence builders:

· When you must be away for a day or two, assign one employee to act as manager in your absence. Select someone who has seemed slightly reluctant to take on new responsibilities, but be sure to prepare him/her well.

· Assign a research project that concludes with a presentation. You might have someone who doesn’t usually speak up in meetings investigate a new line you’re thinking of carrying and present it to the staff.

· Invite an employee to be a sounding board for you on a difficult project, such as developing next year’s advertising budget.

· Ask someone to lead a team of fellow employees in solving a particularly difficult problem that will require several meetings to work out. You’re likely to get your problem solved and to get an employee with sharper leadership skills.

· Invite a new or timid employee to go on a buying trip with you. Introduce the person as an important member of your staff and treat him/her with respect.

· When an employee attends a seminar outside the store, have him make a presentation to other salespeople when he returns.

· Make an assignment that requires some creativity – perhaps designing a showcase display or coming up with new ideas for a diamond promotion.

Whatever activities you try, be sure to comment on anything an employee does well – and on areas where improvements are needed. Added responsibilities give employees a chance to grow; your fair, realistic and consistent assessment of results make them genuine confidence-builders.

JCK MANAGEMENT STUDY CENTER QUIZ

1. Harry tells great jokes; they really cheer things up on a slow afternoon in the store. Sure, they’re sort of sexist, but hey, they’re just jokes! If Mary or one of the other gals on the staff complains, what should you do?

a. Find something constructive for sales associates to do when business is slow. (And stop referring to female employees as “gals.”)

True or False

b. Tell Harry to cool it until Mary gets a life, or at least a sense of humor.

True or False

c. Explain to Harry that sexist, racist or other jokes made at the expense of any group are inappropriate in the workplace and against store policy.

True or False

2. In conducting a performance review, what are some critical points to keep in mind?

a. It’s more important to rate a person’s attitude than a person’s work.

Agree or Disagree

b. Be sure to talk about potential; it’s more important than day-to-day performance.

Agree or Disagree

c. When in doubt about giving a high grade, it’s best to settle on something in the middle.

Agree or Disagree

d. If an employee disagrees with your rating, explain your position but don’t automatically change it.

Agree or Disagree

e. Always try to save time by doing performance and salary reviews together.

Agree or Disagree

3. You’ve always suspected that Bill is gay – though you’ve never had the nerve to ask – and he’s not been looking at all well lately. You’re sure he must have AIDS. What should you do?

a. Check if there’s some way you can drop him from the company health insurance policy before your claims go sky high.

True or False

b. Quietly let other employees in on your suspicions so they can be careful around Bill.

True or False

c. Find some pretext to fire Bill so you can avoid the whole problem.

True or False

d. Forget about it unless or until Bill comes to you. Why look for trouble?

True or False

e. Start an AIDS education program so that you and your employees know the facts.

True or False

4. The principal matters to consider in coaching an employee are:

a. Seeing that the employee understands how to do the job as you would do it.

True or False

b. Recognizing that an employee wants to be productive but has difficulty getting the job done and is in need of help.

True or False

c. Learning in detail about what problems an employee has and then working with him/her to overcome them.

True or False

d. Making sure that if you and the employee agree on a course of action that you follow it up and monitor the program.

True or False

e. Discarding options if you decide it is more efficient merely to “lay down the law.”

True or False

5. Feedback is really a matter of keeping open communication with employees. It’s best if feedback is:

a. Timely, specific and frequent.

True or False

b. Based on assumptions about employee behavior rather than fact.

True or False

c