Giving false reviews to poor performers puts Acme in a tight spot

July 30, 2003
Acme learns it's not good to be overly tolerant

As head of Acme's human resources department, Reba Derchey sees and hears many remarkably odd things. Some of the situations she's been dragged into simply astonish her. Someday, she mused as she looked out her large office window, she should turn her notebooks into a series of vignettes and get them published in a trade magazine.

Reba's daydreams of literary fame and fortune were cut short by soft rapping on her office door. She spun around to find Mort Darther, the head of a production department at the far reaches of Acme's sprawling complex, standing there with a decidedly hang-dog look about him. As she motioned him to enter, Reba's interest was piqued. Mort clearly wouldn't have made the half-mile trek to the executive offices without some darned good reason.

"Well, Mort," she started, "Long time, no see. What brings you up here on this perfectly fine afternoon? How are things going in the back 40?"

"Oh, Ms. Derchey," he replied, "the benefits of that new maintenance program seem to have finally kicked in. The scrap rate on our tricotometric widgets looks like it's trending to levels that would qualify my department to be the plant's first Six Sigma candidate. Boy, if we could only get that sort of performance from the rest of the plant, we'd be sitting pretty."

"That's great news, Mort," she said, "but I doubt that you hiked up here just to tell me that. What's really happening?"

"You're right, Ms. Derchey," Mort replied. "I have a slight problem and need your advice. Art Dekko, one of the senior guys in my department, he's been there a while, but he's just not working out. He can't perform, and I think it would be best if we terminated him."

"Is this something new?" Reba inquired. "Did something out there change that now prevents him from doing his job?"

"No, no. Well, yes. Operational changes," replied Mort, "but nothing that specifically affects him. No, Ms. Derchey, the truth is that he's not been doing well for as long as I've been managing the department."

Reba quickly pecked at her keyboard, bringing up the personnel file for "Dekko, Art, Age 53" and scrolled through the performance review subdirectory. Puzzled, she turned to Mort.

"Mort, his performance reviews all indicate that he's been doing an adequate job," said Reba. "You've been the one signing off on his reviews. Is this correct?"

"Well, yes," said Mort. "I do okay all our reviews and ratings. But if you check further, you'll see that, compared to the other guys in our department, Art got the lowest ratings and the lowest pay increases when we had money to distribute. I thought that by now, Art would have gotten the message and quit. But, that hasn't happened."

"But, Mort, your records still show him as an adequate performer," replied Reba.

"He's a nice person," answered Mort. "Everyone in the department likes him, and I didn't want to wreck morale or hurt his feelings. That's why I gave him the average ratings. But he didn't get the message."

"Lately, the way we work in the plant is changing so much. Operators, for example, are now responsible for day-to-day maintenance on their own machines. The engineers tell us that autonomous maintenance is one of the main reasons the widgets are coming out so well. The problem is that Art doesn't seem to understand that his job now involves more than just cranking out widgets at top speed. And he doesn't know an oil can from a socket wrench. It's the scrap rate on any machine that Art operates that's holding down our progress. I need to fire him as soon as I can."

"That's not going to be possible now," responded Reba. "You're stuck with him until you can show clearly that his performance is inadequate."

Is Acme stuck with Art? What should Mort do now?

An academician says:

This case points out one of the key problems of performance reviewsthat managers are sometimes reluctant to give marginal and poor performance ratings to their marginal and poor performers. It is often much easier just to let them pass. It may avoid unpleasantness, confrontation and bitter feelings, but it also sends a signal to the poor performers that they are doing okay and there is no reason for them to change.

Reba is correct. There is no basis to terminate Art. Mort has consistently told him that he's doing an adequate job, and Art has the performance reviews to support it.

What Mort has to do now is to explain to Art that his performance is not adequate and to provide documentation to back it up. Mort shouldn't wait until next year's performance review. This discussion should be recorded, with written transcripts given to Art. Art should be given a specified period of time to correct his inadequacies. At the end of that time period, Art's performance should be reviewed again, and a determination made whether he stays or goes.

Again, Mort may need some help delivering unpleasant news to his employees, because he seems to be reluctant to do so. Mort's boss should monitor the performance reviews that Mort gives his employees and require that Mort justify each rating. Actually, this should be standard procedure anyway. Forcing a ratings justification helps keep managers honest, and also gives the boss a tool for evaluating evaluate the manager's effectiveness.

Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.

DirectorGraduate Programs in Human Resources, Industrial Relations and Organization Development

Loyola University Chicago

Chicago, Ill.


[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

Maybe Art does have a performance problem, but it's painfully clear in this case that Mortand perhaps Acme's entire HR department as wellmay be at fault.

Employees should have a clear understanding of what's expected of them and how performance will be measured against those expectations. If the job description changes, new expectations should be articulated clearly, and performance metrics should be explained.

Let's go back to the beginning.

Presumably, Acme had some process in place to determine whether Art was competent at the time he was hired. If Art's subsequent performance revealed flaws in the hiring process, it should have been modified to prevent the hiring of incompetent staff. Art also should have received remedial training to bring his skills up to par vis-a-vis Acme's expectations.

If the hiring process wasn't flawed, and Art's performance only became an issue after maintenance duties were added to his job description, Art either should have received training for these new job duties, or have been pruned out of Acme. In either case, performance measures for successful completion of the training program and acceptable on-the-job performance should have been clearly articulated.

One of the most fundamental managerial roles is to monitor each subordinate's performance and ensure that it meets expectations. Has Mort been oblivious to this? Or has he simply not been doing his job?

If Mort is truly oblivious, HR may not have adequately briefed Acme's managers on relevant laws or equipped them to conduct effective performance reviews. If such training has taken place, then Mort has a performance problem of his own.

I headed up HR, I'd first teach Mort how to establish valid performance measures for Art's job. After Mort communicated these to Art, I'd provide Mort with the training necessary to ensure that he could confrIfont poor performance.

I'd visit with Mort's boss, and ensure that valid performance measures for Mort's managerial duties were established and communicated to Mort.

If, after a reasonable period of time, Mort's performance revealed an inability to manage his staff, or Art's performance revealed an inability to do the work required, documentation would be available to justify appropriate staffing changes.

What Mort should do now is craft a set of performance measures that clearly define what he expects from Art.

Francie Dalton

Dalton Alliances, Inc.

Columbia, Maryland


fax: 410-715-8593

[email protected]

An attorney says:

Acme is not "stuck" with Art, but Mort has some work to do before Acme can terminate Art. Because Art is over the age of 40 and protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, he could launch an age discrimination suit if he were discharged. Given Art's current record and years of service, a jury would more likely believe that he was discharged because of his age, rather than poor perfoormance.

When discharging an older worker with a long history of acceptable-to-good performance, an employer normally needs to show that something has changed to make the employee's performance unacceptable. That "something" could be a new supervisor with increased expectations, changes to the job itself or perhaps a decline in the quality or quantity of the employee's work due to disinterest or even a medical problem. Here, it appears that the demands of Art's job have changed, and he is now expected to be responsible for maintenance, a task he appears ill-equipped to perform.

Acme probably gives its younger workers warnings before terminating them for poor performance. To avoid any claim of age discrimination, the company must treat Art exactly the same way. The warnings Acme gives to employees younger than 40 should be given to Art, and he should be given a similar time period to improve. If Art still generates more scrap than his coworkers after the warnings, Acme should terminate him.

Inflated performance reviews haunt many employers when they need to discharge an employee, especially when the worker has been with the company for many years. Like Mort, supervisors are often reluctant to "hurt an employee's feelings" or lower morale by giving an honest review with constructive criticism. Not only can the artificially inflated review hurt the company, it's a disservice to the employee, who doesn't get an honest evaluation of his work so that he knows what to do to improve.

Honesty, it appears, is the best policy after all.

Julie Badel, Partner

Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.

Chicago, Ill.


[email protected]

Our "In the Trenches" stories are created as a learning tool; the names of the companies and the people described within them are fictional. 

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