As a CEO, why am I learning about performance concerns now?

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Q: I am the leader of a tech company along Route 128.  We expect to lay off a small number (about 3-5) of engineers at the end of the summer.  I have been working with our CTO.  Suddenly all of these performance issues are being shared with me.  I have never heard any of these concerns before.  This is startling to me.  I feel like we have been paying top rates to retain his staff and never once have I heard about a performance issue.  Any thoughts on how to move forward?

A: Many of us are turtles when it comes to discussing performance issues.  We avoid and tuck our heads back in our shells, hoping they will go away.  However, these issues tend to get worse before they get better.  And the hours that a manager thinks about them vs. other work-related issues – GINORMOUS.  Managers will perseverate about performance concerns almost endlessly.  Here are my best tips:

  1. Feedback should be an integrated part of regular communications. Don’t hold it in and let it fester.  Present strengths and weaknesses, which tends to make the topic more digestible.  We all have them – strengths and weaknesses.  Make it less taboo by including it in every meeting, project plan, etc.
  2. Don’t hold it in until the year-end review. Some companies have a formal year-end review, which is supposed to be a culmination of the feedback given during the year.  However, some managers are not skilled in giving regular feedback so we see the “dump truck syndrome.”  The manager drives the dump truck and backs it in, and dumps all the feedback on the employee’s lap.  It is not fair and it is really overwhelming.  Additionally, it does not allow the employee the time to absorb, reflect, ask questions, share their thoughts, etc.
  3. Put it on the agenda. When you meet with your management team, put people on the agenda.  You can do it by name and put a placeholder like “team members” or similar.  It forces you to ask about them.  “How is Jess doing?  I know she had a death in her family last month.”  Or, “Chuck seems to be out a lot.  What is going on there?”

Finally, in your situation, I would ask why.  Why are you hearing performance concerns now?  Why all of a sudden?  Ask your management team to provide an update on their team members.  Sometimes if an organization has an unsettling event approaching (like a layoff), employees can sense that an event is “in the works.”

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.