Human Resources News & Insights

What would you do? Her reviews are good, her work’s bad

Periodically, we ask three HR managers how they’d handle a difficult situation at work. Today’s problem: A company manager wants to fire an employee he says is a chronic underperformer. But her reviews tell a different story.

The scenario

“I hate to say it, but we’ve got to fire Maria Falcone,” said supervisor Matt Parkhurst, plopping himself into a chair in HR manager Beth Thomas’s office.

“Has it really come to that?” asked Beth.

“Yeah, I’m at my wits’ end,” said Matt. “I’ve tried everything to get her back on track but nothing’s worked.”

Beth sighed. “OK, well, let me go over the documentation we have on her this afternoon before we start putting together the necessary paperwork.”

Later that afternoon, Beth summoned Matt to his office.

“We’ve got a problem,” said Beth.

“What’s that?” asked Matt.

“All these performance reviews say Maria’s doing pretty well,” said Beth.

Matt fidgeted in his seat. “Well, I was hoping she could improve,” he said. “I didn’t want to discourage her so I gave her satisfactory reviews and tried to coach her  to do better. But no amount of coaching helped at all.”

“Matt, Maria’s over 40,” said Beth. “If we fire her, she could file an age discrimination suit. And if she does, these positive performance reviews are going to look pretty suspicious to a judge.”

“Come on, Beth, Maria’s performance is by far the worst in her department. Isn’t that evidence enough?” asked Matt. “She’s really holding us back. We need to get rid of her.”

If you were Beth, what would you say or do next?

What your peers said

An HR coordinator in Idaho

What she’d do: I certainly wouldn’t fire Maria now. She’s over 40, and nothing in Matt’s records indicates she’s done anything but a good job. Instead, I’d go over documentation practices with Matt and make sure he gives Maria more honest feedback in the future.

Reason: This seems like it could be an opportunity for both employees – Matt and Maria – to improve. Matt certainly needs work on his documentation. At the same time, if Maria knows what she needs to do better, she can improve as an employee.

An HR manager for a government agency in Kentucky

What she’d do: I’d bring Maria in and explain to her that Matt felt giving her positive reviews in the past would motivate her, but that it hadn’t worked out as he’d planned. Moving forward, I’d have Matt set clear benchmarks for Maria to meet, and give her a specific time frame to meet them.

Reason: The dishonesty has gone on long enough. You have to be honest with your employees, even when they don’t want to hear what you have to say. Otherwise, how can they know they’re not performing well?

An  executive director in Michigan

What he’d do: I wouldn’t move towards firing Maria. I’d call her in and tell her we had a discussion about letting her go but decided against it. I’d let her know that she still has a chance to start earning the positive reviews she received in the past.

Reason: If her performance review took a downturn this late in her career, it’d look like age bias. And I believe in being honest with employees – if Maria knows we’ve talked about letting her go, she would see how far she has to go to save her job.

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  1. I am constantly amazed at how many managers give positive reviews and then out of the blue want to fire someone because of poor performance…without ever having mentioned to the employee that there is a problem. I agree with the executive director from Michigan. We need to be honest with employees. She should be told that her performance isn’t adequate and be given an opportunity to improve. I also agree with the HR coordinator from Idaho. Matt needs to be taught how to better document and deal with performance issues. Both employees have failed and need to be given an opportunity to do better in the future.

  2. James Whanger says:

    I would ask Mr. Parkhurst for the written development plan he implemented with Ms. Falcone. If there was not one — I would ask Mr. Parkhurst for a verbal description of the development plan he had implemented along with the dates and details of the coaching sessions he provided for Ms. Falcone.

    If Mr. Parkhurst has not taken a structured approach to this managerial problem, it is not possible to disentangle his performance as a manager from Ms. Falcone’s performance as his employee. This is too often the case — and companies become habituated to constant turnover at lower levels rather than investing in very needed supervisory coaching and training.

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