A helping hand Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Every company wants its employees to succeed. One way to guide employees toward their full potential is by using a practice called performance intervention.

Performance intervention is more than a fancy name for coaching, mentoring or formal performance appraisals, says Don St. Clair, vice president for enrollment management and marketing and adjunct faculty member of organizational leadership at Woodbury University. “Performance intervention suggests that when you see a possible performance problem, you’re going to immediately take action on it in a positive manner.”

Smart Business spoke with St. Clair about performance intervention, how it can best be utilized and what pitfalls to avoid.

What is performance intervention?

Performance intervention is the concept of identifying gaps or areas in employees’ performance that can be strengthened or improved. When employees have an area that they’re underperforming in, rather than taking punitive action, which can even include firing someone, you want to intervene. You want to take employees aside and tell them what areas they need to improve in and how you will help them meet these expectations.

How can a company best utilize performance intervention to improve employee productivity?

The first thing that should be done is to position performance intervention as a good thing, not a bad thing. The inclination in many organizations is that people not meeting expectations should be replaced. The fact is that employee turnover costs a lot of money. There is the cost of finding and recruiting employees, the cost of training employees, the lost productivity when a position is open and the lost productivity associated with somebody getting up to speed. It is important to recognize that dismissal should be the course of last resort.

Performance intervention can be utilized to identify the areas of employee productivity that aren’t where you’d like them to be. By identifying the areas of employee performance that could be improved and then by taking a proactive approach to help the employee become better, you’re going to increase productivity, reduce turnover and improve morale.

How should a company get started with performance intervention?

It starts with being able to identify exactly what it is that you expect from employees. I like to break it into two different categories: the characteristics that you would like an employee to have and the specific job outcomes that you would like the employee to achieve. The characteristics might be personal. For instance, maybe you have an employee who does a great job and is very competent, but doesn’t always dress well. This can be an issue with younger employees who have limited business experience and don’t understand that you don’t dress for work the same way you dress for a 9 a.m. physics class. Public speaking could be another personal characteristic. Maybe you have someone who is capable but doesn’t speak well publicly. Performance intervention would address these issues by coaching the employees on how to dress or how to appropriately speak in public.

On the other hand, you might want to address outcomes. For instance, there might be an employee who is not meeting sales targets. In this case, you would want to have a very specific outcome-oriented intervention to establish how he or she is doing the job, and how you can help him or her do better.

What are some pitfalls to avoid?

The number one thing is that employee interventions need to be positioned as a positive thing. The performance evaluation should be going on all the time, not just once a year. A number of years ago, Ken Blanchard wrote a book called the “The One Minute Manager.” This book is about catching people doing things right and doing things wrong and identifying them on the spot. If an employee is doing something really well, you should take a second out of your day to tell him or her what he or she did was really great. On the other hand, if you find someone doing something wrong, rather than making a note in a file and talking to him or her about it at their end-of-the-year performance evaluation, you should stop them right there and tell how he or she can approach the situation better.

Once in place, how should a system be evaluated?

If you’re doing good appraisals and intervening in performance problems timely and positively then you should have less turnover than you did before. The idea is that you don’t want to replace people. You want to get people into the organization, get them performing at a high level and keep them performing at a high level.

DON ST. CLAIR is vice president for enrollment management and marketing and adjunct faculty member of organizational leadership at Woodbury University. Reach him at don.stclair@woodbury.edu.