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Addressing Performance Issues for Any Age Employee

By Mary Lloyd

One of the common "reasons" for not hiring seasoned employees is that "It's harder for supervisors to address performance issues with employees who are older than they are." Who dreams this stuff up? There have been bosses who are younger than their workers since God invented work. The trick isn't to hire people who are the same age as you are. It's knowing how to give performance feedback.

On my very first job in the natural gas industry, I shared a secretary with two other women professionals. The woman who was to provide our clerical support was an entry-level hire who came on as part of a program to increase the number of protected-class employees within the company. I was finishing up doctoral work but had never given work direction on a formal basis before. My two peers were equally clueless.

Our support person was pleasant, well-groomed, and punctual, but after a few weeks it was clear that she had a lot to learn about even the most basic things secretarial-like typing a letter. We each assumed separately that the best thing to do was to give her time to learn. So we just put up with all the mistakes. Eventually, the quality of her work got so embarrassing that I stopped asking her to type for me at all. I sent personal notes whenever I could or typed it myself. My coworkers were putting up with the same stuff and doing basically the same thing-"being nice" and waiting for her to improve. No one complained and no one mentioned it to our boss.

Then she had her "official" three-month performance review with our boss. Since we hadn't told him to the contrary, he told her she was doing fine. As a routine part of the process, he asked what job she wanted next. She told him she felt she was ready to do my job.

He passed that information back to me. That's when I realized an important thing about giving work direction. Somebody needed to talk to her to let her know she wasn't doing what we needed in the job she already had.

Her three work directors sat down with her together-not the best of strategies since it had the potential for being seen as "3 against 1." No worries about that! The other two danced around the problems when it was their turn to talk and by the time it got to me, she pretty much still thought she was doing fine.

It was up to me, and I was tired of typing my own stuff. So I told her. I made it very clear what we were all doing to get around the fact that she wasn't doing her job. I focused on the work and what wasn't getting done. I focused on what she needed to do well to be doing the job she held. I tried hard to make sure she understood that I thought she could make those improvements. But I pretty much laid it on the line that she was screwing up.

After the meeting I figured I was going to be the one that got fired. What I had done was certainly "not nice." But the most amazing thing happened. The turnaround in her performance in the next few weeks was unbelievable. She actually starting doing what we needed done.

Why? Because she knew that her performance wasn't up to par and she knew what she had to do to improve. And eventually, she did move on to a higher level position.

That lesson has made a huge difference in my management skills. If you want employees to perform well, you have to tell them when they aren't. No matter how old they are, what color skin they have, and what religion they practice.

Your feedback needs to be about the work that isn't getting done properly. It needs to be about what to do to improve. It needs to set a clear standard for what really is effective performance of the job. And it's got to include a clear assumption that you really do expect the person can make the needed improvement.

In this case, I was older than the person I needed to talk with. Since then, I have been younger many many times. It doesn't make any difference at all how old the employee who needs the feedback is. The important thing is to focus on the work and on what needs to improve.

Really good supervisors give performance feedback on an on-going, collaborative basis. But at a minimum, a supervisor needs to address performance problems as soon as they are identified. If they don't, the employee doesn't know anything is wrong.

Bottom line on all this: Employees want to know if they are performing effectively and how to improve if they aren't. When you keep them in the dark "to be nice" you aren't being nice at all. You're setting them up to fail--whether they are 18 or 68.