When Performance is an Issue: Steps to Take

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Today museum professionals face more numerous challenges than they have ever faced before—how best to reach, attract and communicate with varied audiences; dwindling revenue sources; ever-increasing pressure to raise funds; and the need to be connected 24/7.

If that weren’t enough, we struggle with too few staff to effectively perform the mountain of work we face each day. But what happens when we realize that one of our staff members isn’t adequately performing?

Sooner or later it will be necessary to address a performance issue. Whether it begins as a small matter or a major problem, you will need to have one or more frank discussions with your employee. This is not something that comes naturally to most of us and none of us looks forward to this type of conversation, but as leaders in our institutions it’s incumbent upon us to guide and coach our staff through difficult times.

Your goal in these situations is to salvage your employee; we spend considerable time, energy and money attracting and hiring the right person for the job, and the cost of replacing staff is great. Invariably managers tell me that they don’t have time for this. While I sympathize, I don’t let them off the hook. We owe it to our staff and to our institutions to help our employees succeed.

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Once a problem surfaces, address it. In order to correct the problem, your employee needs to understand what the problem is. Be as specific as possible. While it may be obvious to you, often people don’t realize they’re doing something wrong until they’re told. Providing constructive examples is an important part of helping your staff member understand the issue. Try to get buy-in from your employee. Without buy-in or at a minimum, an understanding of the problem, it’s difficult if not impossible to correct it.

Determine how you can help your employee or how your employee can help himself. Is there additional training that can be offered? Is there a mentor with whom your employee can work? Is more or better communication about requirements needed? Once your employee understands the problem, ask him for suggestions as to how he might be able to change his behavior or what you can offer that might help. If there are resources that aren’t in the budget or can’t be offered for other reasons, be honest. For example, you might not have training monies available this year, but you can budget them next year.

Document your meetings. At first, your typed or handwritten notes of meetings might be adequate. Tell your employee that you’ll e-mail a summary of the meeting to him to ensure that both of you have the same understanding of what was discussed. This serves as a recap of the discussion, an opportunity to address and resolve any confusion, and it also serves as legal documentation of the discussion.

Documentation is critical. If a claim is filed against your organization, the burden is on you to prove that any action you have taken was not discriminatory. The first thing that will be requested or subpoenaed will be your documentation. Unfortunately in the eyes of the court, if there is no documentation, the situation didn’t exist. Always date your documentation. Documenting is time-consuming, but it is useful in many ways. We’re all busy and our days are a blur. Keeping accurate documentation will help you recall specific conversations—“Remember, John that when we spoke on April 10th we discussed the following…?”

If you have a progressive discipline policy, follow it. If you have a policy but you don’t follow it, change it or get rid of it. While every performance problem is unique, be as consistent as possible. Fairness is an important part of the process.

If the problem persists, stay close to your employee. Give candid and honest feedback. Be clear about what the problem is and how it must be improved. If you realize that your employee’s performance will not improve despite your best efforts, you should prepare a final written warning. It should clearly state the problem and what has been done to improve it. It should also reference prior discussions—“Over the past two months John and I have met six times…” It should state what the options are if the problem doesn’t improve and it should include a deadline and consequences—“If John’s performance doesn’t improve by June 30th, John will be terminated…”

If despite giving your employee the tools necessary to improve, improvement isn’t taking place, termination may be the only or best option. Termination should never be a surprise. A clearly written final warning is not only an important piece of legal documentation; it summarizes in one document the issue, what’s been done to try to improve the performance and consequences if the performance doesn’t improve.

If, on the other hand, your employee has used the tools you’ve given him and his performance has improved to your standards, you’ve both won the battle. You can be proud of yourself that your time and effort have paid off and you have a more productive and happier employee helping to further your mission.


Ellen Corradini, director, human resources & safety, Corning Museum of Glass. Ms. Corradini received her bachelor’s degree in French from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and a Certificat d’études from the Centre de Linguistique Appliqué, in Besançon, France. Ms. Corradini joined the Corning Museum of Glass in 2000 after spending 19 years working in human resource management, training and development. Her activities as the director of human resources and safety at the Museum have included employment and recruiting, salaries and benefits, dispute resolution and counseling, and organizational development. She has developed and led seminars on human resource issues.

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