Educational Equity Newsletter – April 16, 2020
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Tackling Performance Challenges
We’ve gotten questions about working through employee performance challenges during a pandemic. On the one hand, your stakeholders deserve the very best you can give. On the other hand, you’re working with people—who may be navigating the most difficult time of their lives (especially for Black and Latinx people, who are being hit the hardest by the pandemic).
Leaders trying to manage equitably and compassionately might be grappling with these questions:
- For staff from groups that are disproportionately being impacted by the pandemic (e.g., Black and Latinx people), should we address performance challenges differently?
- How do we handle long-term performance issues that pre-existed the pandemic? Should we still move forward with performance plans?
- What if someone who typically performs well begins to drop balls during the pandemic?
Performance challenges across lines of race during the pandemic
Managers may find it difficult to raise performance issues across lines of difference right now. It’s more important than ever for managers to assess how you evaluate performance to ensure that your biases don’t lead to snap judgments, particularly with staff who are different from you. Here’s our advice:
- Check your PTR. In a time when so much feels out of your control, it’s easy to micromanage and ding a staff member for not doing things as you would have done them—even if they still met the desired outcome. Evaluate staff based on the requirements of the job, not your preferences or traditions on how it should be done. Delegate the outcome you need, then give tactical flexibility in getting there.
- Define what the job is now. Many leaders still haven’t been able to formally redefine roles, reset expectations, and emphasize what matters most right now. The more differences in thinking, approach, and background between you and your direct report, the more likely it is that they can’t read the playbook in your mind and intuit how you’ll measure performance. Create and share a role description specifically for this period. For individual projects, while you want to check your PTR (see above), you should also be explicit if there are strong preferences you have for how the work gets done.
- Do a bias check. When managers don’t intentionally watch for bias, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ folks, and other staff members at the margins disproportionately receive their harsh assessments of performance. Do a bias check to make sure you’re supporting your staff members equitably. If you notice any trends that indicate bias, remediate those as you take steps to improve their performance.
- If you believe that your assessment is solid, take action. Once you’ve tackled the previous steps, give feedback and/or use a performance plan. Consider the best ways to support them to grow their skills. In most cases, waiting to take action isn’t equitable, and makes it more likely that performance will continue to worsen, eventually leading to a more extreme consequence. With that said, we recommend holding off if you are aware that your staff member is in an acute personal crisis related to COVID-19 (e.g., they are ill, caring for someone who is ill, dealing with serious mental health concerns, etc.). In these cases, we would consider giving the feedback, but delaying the performance plan.
Long-term performance issues that persist in the pandemic
If you’ve been dealing with a performance issue before COVID-19, it might be complicated now. The staff member’s work expectations might be different, new sets of problematic behaviors may be popping up, and you may have less bandwidth overall. Here’s our advice:
- Don’t quit the plan; redefine it. If the plan no longer fits, rethink the performance standards during this time and how you’ll measure them. Make time to talk through these expectations. Renegotiate the timeline for check-ins as needed, but don’t skip them. Finally, set a date to check on progress and decide whether the plan should continue.
- If performance weakens further, get curious before advancing the plan. Ask questions to understand what is causing the decline. It might have nothing to do with COVID-19, but get clear about the why before you consider termination.
- If you choose to terminate, be as generous as you can. Consider ways to offset the impact, such as by offering severance, paid COBRA premiums for 2 months, or outplacement or career coaching services.
What if a staff member who typically performs well hits a dip in their performance?
It’s tough when someone you can typically rely on begins to drop balls. In those cases:
- Get to the heart of what’s happening. Check in and ask questions to understand what’s going on and determine what mitigations and support you can provide. Use our CSAW framework (with lots of space for the “Ask” step!).
- Create space for them to push back on unrealistic expectations. Your job is to lead your teams to produce ambitious results. In the pandemic, even strong performers may not be able to pull the weight they used to. Create a safe space for them to be honest about what they can and can’t do during this difficult time. Across lines of difference, this trust is even more critical to build. Here are some tips to approach that conversation:
- Make it expected. You could say, “I expect people to have differing needs right now. The best way you can support the team is by being honest about what you can do so we can adjust accordingly.” If you’re checking in about project deliverables, you might say, “Originally, we set a deadline of x to accomplish ___. Is that still feasible? If not, what do you recommend?” Or, if you’re setting a bar for responsiveness, you could say, “It’s important that our families know that we’re here for them. I’d like to respond to parent emails within 2 business days. Is that realistic? If not, what would we need to deprioritize to make that happen?”
- Give examples of accommodations that are available before asking what they need. Lead with the things that you know you or others are taking advantage of. Examples: flexing work time to accommodate caregiving responsibilities, renegotiating deadlines, or skipping non-essential meetings.
- Make it clear that you’ll be holding them to these new expectations. When setting deadlines or creating other expectations, confirm that the new standard is one they can meet. Then, hold them to it.
- Have conversations about their progress at a regular cadence. In check-ins and debriefs, invite them to reflect on how they’re doing in the area that needs improvement. Share what you think of their progress and revise action plans moving forward.
We know it’s not easy to think about these conversations right now, but managing well in a crisis is about making the hard calls in service of your mission. We hope these tips will make it a little easier to navigate these tricky issues.
If you need more support, check out our upcoming FREE training: Tools for Compassionate and Equitable Performance Management in the Time of Pandemic (Tuesday, April 21st at 4pm EST). Register here.