Performance Management is not bullying. Or, is it?

performance management

The thin line between performance management and bullying is easily crossed by managers who fail to recognize their responsibilities. Employers expect managers to be proactive in pushing for high performance at work, to set and monitor challenging goals and to provide employees with feedback on their performance.

It can be very easy for managers to cross the line into behavior which may be considered as bullying or harassment. What might seem judicious and constructive to the managers, may appear to be persistent mistreatment and criticism to the employee. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 72% are aware that workplace bullying happens, 21% have witnessed it, and 27% of Americans have been bullied at work by a manager or supervisor.

Managers and supervisors are often unclear about their responsibilities, especially when it comes to pushing the performance of their staff. Under Federal and State anti-discrimination laws, an employer may be legally responsible for supervisors’ inappropriate behavior unless it can be proven that reasonable measures have been taken to abate this problem.

For organizations, it’s a matter of ensuring that supervisors have proper tools handy and do not cross the line by employing inappropriate means of pushing their staffs’ performance. It’s important that organizations enforce a clear anti-bullying policy.

Workplace bullying isn’t exactly covered under a specific legislation that addresses it, or a precise legal definition. Although, experts generally deem workplace bullying as repetitive, unreasonable behavior that humiliates, demoralizes, or threatens an employee and causes risk to their health or safety.

Since the Fair Work Commission began hearing matters related to workplace bullying, there has been a steady stream of bullying complaints having been made. The exact number of complaints made to the commission will only be known with the release of its annual report. It should, however, be noted that a fair share of claims have amongst the complaints is by employees who were being constantly bullied in the name of performance reviews.

Often, bullying behavior is misunderstood as an abrasive performance management style by managers. In June 2014, an employee collapsed at work and was taken to the hospital, after a change in the way his performance ratingwas recorded as a part of his annual performance review and which resulted in his annual bonus payment being cut off. The Fair Work Commission ruled that, unless a discretionary bonus has been applied in a retributive manner as a part of a course of conduct which falls within the meaning of workplace bullying, the Commission should be cautious about considering a discretionary bonus as workplace bullying because it is a matter which should be left to the employer’s discretion.

When a manager is pointing out an employee’s failings, it often puts a strain on the healthy manager-employee relationship. Consequently, it builds up to a formal procedure, during which the employee may become defensive. Often, such interactions become difficult for managers, wherein they are left with no other choice, but to withdraw and use corporate “scripts” or make limited use of examples to highlight the issue. Some managers lack the patience to wait for a change, or are under pressure themselves that they don’t have the time to support their employees in an appropriate manner. Employees under such leadership start taking such challenges personally, which usually builds up to a point where they feel they are being bullied. It is often under such circumstances that bullying complaints are made. There’s a way, of course, to deal with it, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot ignore the issue.

The case highlighted a difference between an abrasive, dictorial management style, and a conduct that can be merely regarded as humiliating and demoralizing, where employees are treated unfavorably. An effective management system helps make certain that managers don’t behave inappropriately.

Employers need to ensure the issues are clearly identified, and that the employees recognize them, understand where they are getting wrong. Often, bullying accusations are made when the real reason behind the performance concern aren’t spelt out appropriately. Employers need to make sure genuine support and training is being offered to the employee. They need to keep track of gaps between the performance review meetings, since it is directly related to the nature of work that is being measured and the time period since the employee has been allowed to underperform.

An effective process is one which can help achieve agreed upon outcomes. It helps create an effective means of setting and reviewing targets on a continuing basis. It’s based on an effective approach for reviewing set targets on an ongoing basis. It’s important that the targets set are as realistic for the employees as they can be.

When mangers or supervisors lack the skills to provide motivation, employees easily fall back on negative feedback. An effective management process is the one which comprises of constructive means and gives out positive recognition of achievement. It constitutes of many mechanisms, one of which is financial rewards. Employees in such cases appreciate feedback from managers and respond positively to it.

However, for managers, creating and implementing an effective performance management process requires a lot more than empathy and people skills. It’s important the employers invest in developing managers’ interpersonal skills, so they are able to effectively communicate with employees, understand the causes of performance issues and respond as properly.

Employers also need to look at the manager-employee relationship and the work setting. For example, is it a new manager who has been dealing with a long-standing underperformance issue? Under such circumstances, the new managers is often left to deal with long standing underperformance issues, along with additional tension. From an employee’s perspective, it’s the new manager who has been creating havoc in their life, since everything was fine until the new line manager arrived. Bullying allegations can easily arise in such context.

Next, they need to ensure that there is no personal animosity involved. If the relationship can be recovered, then this can become an even difficult process, since it can rarely yield a good outcome. Lastly, employers need to give line managers the right kind of support if he/she is under pressure or inexperienced.

It is often misunderstood by managers that a bullying behavior can help achieve necessary results in today’s competitive environment. Not only is it unacceptable, but it’s also detrimental to everyone involved.

Under circumstances, where the employee has officially made complaint about workplace bullying, here are some things to think about:

Can the employer introduce a few changes, and request the employee to drop the complaint in return? Often, HR managers and employers are hesitant about trying this, because it may come off as pre-judging the outcome of the formal complaint. They can ask the employee if they’d like someone else to manage the performance review process. In a situation where the employee has agreed to withdraw the complaint, they need to clearly record it somewhere.

In a workplace setting where to serious risk factors are involved, and there’s a potential discrimination issue, employers can deal with the complaint before actually carrying on, that way they can assess the situation and understand how real the risk is.

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