Employee Performance Levels: Publish or Perish

David’s Shift in Thinking - Mar 23, 2016

David Baker
Leadership & Culture

I would like to offer the rental of a magic scale that retroactively measures effort.

Anyone at anytime can walk up, step on the scale, and see the level of effort they contributed the previous week.  The level is shown as a percentage of their “full effort”, displayed on a graduated scale starting at zero for little or no effort, reaching to a high of ten for the maximum amount available.  So if John worked at half-pace that week, on Friday, when he stepped on the scale, it would show a five.

Person standing on a scale that measures effort. The scale reads five, halfway on a scale of zero through ten.

Now, picture everyone in your company – one by one – stepping on the scale. Can you see the numbers appearing as each person steps up to be weighed?

  • What would the average effort level be at your company?
  • What is the average level at your competitors?
  • Does it differ across departments in your company?
  • What would happen if every person had to step on the scale while everyone else was watching? (In most environments it would create more discomfort than a normal weight scale!)

What do you think the average amount of effort spent would be if you could weigh all the employees at, say…. the Department of Motor Vehicles? How about at the post office or maybe your favorite restaurant, or Google, or Apple?

Right or wrong, most people can answer pretty quick.

This is because every company has established, over time, a minimum level of effort (as well as attitude and skill) that must be demonstrated to remain employed… and everyone knows what that level is. In candid terms, it’s the “firing line”; fall below it and you are gone. It may sound harsh but it’s true of every company. In some the line is very low and in some it is very high, but the line is there.

In many companies, the “firing line” for attitude and effort can be quite high, while the skill line may be lower (think of gas stations or quick service restaurants). In other organizations, the skill line may be valued well above that of attitude (perhaps for professional athletes). While there may be general patterns, every organization is unique. Much like fingerprints, these lines identify organizations, as a strange assimilation occurs when people merge into an understanding of what is accepted and expected. In some organizations, these lines are drawn with intention and are made very clear. In others, the lines have simply evolved over time and while not overtly stated, are still in place.

Often, when it comes to these levels, we conflate high with harsh. In cultures such as Amazon, where levels of performance are crystal clear, people know what they are getting into, so claiming “caveat emptor” or buyer beware is fair game. While publishing performance levels may seem harsh, what Amazon has done is create a “hiring line”, effectively bringing clarity of expectations and diminishing the use of the “firing line” as they attract people that want what they offer. So is it really harsh?

And what about organizations where performance levels are not clearly codified, shared or published for all to see? Within “unpublished” cultures, people still have a good sense of the minimums required. Here the lines are known – one simply needs to look at the performance of the least desirable employee who remains employed – but are considered covert and it’s awkward if discussed. The outworking of “covert versus overt” tends to be a grouping along the “firing line” of those who believe “what is accepted is what is expected” and a voluntary exit of those who want higher performance. In effect, standards succumb to mediocrity.

In the absence of clear standards, stories are left to evolve unmanaged. Thoughts such as “If Shirley still works here after that, then I guess the standard is pretty low”, are shared in the halls and boardrooms with everybody but Shirley (remember the lines are covert). Most people are familiar with the old joke about two friends who encounter a bear while walking in the woods. One friend starts to run, the other stops to put on his shoes. The runner exclaims, “What are you doing!! You need to hurry up and outrun that bear!” To which the sneakered friend replies, “No I don’t, I just have to outrun you!” So it is in cultures left undefined; people are measured against those around them, not with the market in which they compete. As a result, the cultural understanding of what is acceptable slides downhill.

In the end, unpublished or unenforced standards always mean declining levels of performance (both the “hiring line” and the “firing line”) as human nature will promote comfort over conflict and the system will always “cut each other slack”, producing covert standards that lower over time.

As a leader, intentional or not, you decide where the line is for your company. As a person, intentional or not, you decide where the line is for yourself.

In the long run, if you don’t draw (and publish) the line:

  1. Above average employees quit
  2. Clients looking for above average leave (or don’t sign on)
  3. Faced with no differentiation, margin decreases

While it may appear harsh to publish performance levels, it really is publish or perish.