When I was an HR practitioner, one of my most used phrases to management was, “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.” I would use this phrase many times a week, especially when it came to conversations surrounding employee performance management. I’d be asked, “Julie, [insert employee name here] came in late again today. What do I do?” My first response to this was always to ask how many times in the past few months that employee was late, and where the manager had recorded any lateness incidents. Was it in their electronic employee record? What were the stated reasons for the lateness? What were the full circumstances surrounding the incident?

Much to my dismay, around 90 percent of the time the manager would reply that there was no documentation, therefore they couldn’t answer the questions I posed. I would sigh, and repeat:

If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.

This phrase was used for effect, and of course the situations “happened,” but from a performance management standpoint the opportunity to coach or confront the employee regarding their infraction had long since passed. If a manager got to the point where they wanted to discipline or terminate that employee, the company was likely to have to pay unemployment benefits due to lack of documentation showing the pattern of infractions that violated policy. Having a place where performance metrics and rules violations for each employee was stored was key to proving a pattern of breaking policy or gross misconduct. What was even more vital is that managers took the time to document the infractions.

Herein lies the reason why, despite the disruption to business we are all going through, performance management—and performance appraisals—are still important to maintain. Current challenges aside, business goes on, and with that, some expectations of employees have likely shifted. Regardless of the changes and circumstances we have experienced, certain norms still universally exist, and companies still expect their employees to produce quality work and maintain business conduct standards.

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HR agility goes a long way

Among other people-related matters, HR professionals may now be pondering how to handle performance management. How are teams managed virtually? Are managers versed in how to manage remote teams? Are there new norms arising for measuring performance? Should performance appraisals be conducted at all?

Business leaders need to ensure that employees are aware of their performance not while simply working remotely or onsite, but while working differently.

Answers to the questions posed will look different for each organization, but what has become clear is that companies will need to rethink and revamp their people management strategies to fit the changing times. By putting people at the forefront and by taking a measured and strategic approach, managers can ensure that their employees know where they stand in terms of job performance.

With the rise of reskilling and upskilling employees to fit changing needs of organizations, managers must ensure that they are allowing time for a learning curve for those who have acquired new skills. Remembering that nothing is normal right now, including our capacity to comprehend and process new information, is important.

Communicating effectively and setting measurable goals is critical

Communication truly is everything when it comes to performance appraisals. If evaluations will continue during remote work, employees need to be aware of that well in advance of the date of the evaluation discussion. If there are normally raises or bonuses tied to positive evaluations, will those continue as well? If not, how will managers convey that message, and what kind of damage might be done to the employer-employee relationship through a broken promise? In this situation overcommunication is a best practice.

Companies need to determine what the other implications are for a positive or negative employee evaluation, and consistency must be shown throughout the process. The message that employee success may not be measured based on how things were when they were “normal” must be delivered, if that is the case.

Previously set goals may no longer be attainable in a virtual work setting, but informed and educated managers can be just as successful managing virtually as traditional performance management. What helps a lot in facilitating this is an HCM system that allows flexible back-and-forth conversations with employees around goals. If managers and their teams can comment and converse in real time in a central location, it documents the ongoing evolution and completion of performance goals, allows for changes to fit new situations, and provides a clear record when appraisal time comes.

People like to know things with certainty, especially when it comes to their job performance. Wherever possible, setting measurable goals will help remove the argument that a manager was biased in giving an evaluation. This is especially important while face to face meetings are unable to occur. Furthermore, assuring that there is no ambiguity when it comes to job roles and responsibilities will help workers feel like they have better direction and control in chaotic times.

Drive productivity through empathetic leadership

It’s important for employees who normally work in an office environment to be reminded that they are not just working from home, but they are working from home during a crisis. Their personal, physical, and mental well-being is paramount to work, and they should not try to make up for what they perceive as lost productivity due to other obligations by working more hours. Reminding employees that as an organization these principles are observed will go a long way to ensuring their need for safety both physically and psychologically.

Additionally, being aware that change is just beginning for employees is also important when it comes to performance appraisals. Just when employees might seem to be getting more comfortable with their work from home situations, there are many states and jurisdictions allowing offices to reopen.

This is another disruption to work, because the offices of the future are likely to operate very differently from the offices of the past. Some employees will have to relearn how to do their jobs while wearing PPE. Some might need to alternate days in the office with days at home in rotating groups to maintain social distancing. Some might have found that they prefer to work from home and being forced to work in an office setting again promotes angst.

All of these situations affect performance and must be taken into account when conducting performance reviews. If you’re able to quantify these behaviors through specific metrics and even predict for some of them, it will make these conversations a lot easier. Looking at employee behavior and workforce trends in your HCM system, and even automating some alerts around predicted trends with the help of AI, can help you be proactive about discussing changes in employee performance and setting clear standards as our ways of working change yet again.

Conclusion: Performance is more than documentation; it's helping employees succeed

As you navigate the adjustments you need to make to your performance processes, don’t forget to support your managers too and ensure that they’re trained in being empathetic leaders so they can effectively institute any changes. And above all, don’t lose sight of the fact that even though we may not be working face to face, there are still so many moments that matter for employees; with performance appraisals being among the most important milestones in the employee journey.

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Published: Friday, May 15, 2020