When does performance management become bullying?


Date: 24 July 2009

Ask an underperforming employee and many will say, setting targets, giving me warnings is bullying me. Ask their manager and they will say they are frustrated by the lack of performance . 

They will tell you an employment law requirement such as warnings make their life difficult and impose unnecessary procedural burdens. Ask a high performing employee and they will say the setting of targets and giving of feedback is welcome and helps them improve their performance.

Employers have often failed to confront performance problems, or ‘square pegs in round holes’ and used transfers and ‘promotions’ to move employees out of critical performance areas. Until quite recently it was common to hear “he’s been here twenty years and he’s never been any good” as a long saga of under-performance and under management unfolded. Now underperforming staff are more likely to be ‘performance managed’ out of the business. 

The practise of setting objectives, then warnings, then dismissal (if objectives are not met), can look like a fair and objective process. But, poor practise and a few rogue players are giving performance management a bad name, that in some organisations announcing that an individual needs to go on a performance improvement programme is tantamount to handing them their notice!

The setting of impossible goals (by over stating the goals or under resourcing what is needed to achieve it) is one of the behaviours identified as bullying. Not only will unrealistic goals undermine the fairness of any dismissal but they may  also trigger claims of bullying. If these claims are linked to any issue of discrimination this can turn into a very expensive 'efficiency exercise'. Managers need to take care that their performance management and supervision is based on what can be achieved and offers adequate training, resourcing and support.

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