Targeting Low Performers
Amazon recently rolled out a new program aimed at its lowest-performing employees, but some experts think the bulk of HR's attention should be paid to high-performing workers.
By Carol Patton
For many employers, PIPs -- formally known as performance improvement plans -- are considered a last-ditch effort to help underperforming employees succeed in their job before pushing them out the door.
Amazon has developed a new training program named "Pivot" that takes this approach one step further. The program assigns struggling employees to in-house "Career Ambassadors" for a set time frame who provide guidance and support, something typically unheard of for lower-wage workers. The program is intended to serve as a lifeline, giving employees an opportunity to improve their job performance, quit with severance, or appeal their manager's decision to place them in the program. So far, program reaction has been mixed among HR professionals. Some applaud the e-commerce giant for reaching out to troubled employees while others believe the program's focus is blurred, targeting the wrong population or intervening much too late.
Lisa Downs, president and owner of DevelopmentWise Consulting, a Seattle-based leadership and team development coach and consultant, believes this type of coaching program can be successful based on several factors.
"I was happy to see that Amazon is looking to recruit people with a background in HR and performance management to help employees with their development," she says. "If you try to do this with internal people and they're not well-equipped with these skills, then that can set [employees] up to not be successful."
Amazon's online job description for career ambassadors requires individuals to have seven years of experience in HR, employee relations, social services or similar fields and also be skilled in advising without directing, allowing others to realize their own answers and solutions and "own their choices."
For programs such as this to be effective, Downs says, many details need to be addressed, such as confidentiality. Should the employee's boss be privy to private coaching conversations? Likewise, programs like these can be ripe with stigmas. How can managers promote them? Capacity is yet another consideration.
"Make sure you have the bandwidth and people to pull something like this off well, to keep it sustainable," Downs says. "The last thing you want to do is launch something, get everyone excited, and then realize once you're far down the road, that you don't have the capacity or resources to really keep it going for very long."
Experts say such programs can send a strong message to job applicants and employees that a company cares about its workers, and help rebrand its corporate image.
Amazon, which declined to comment for this story, may also be using the program to soften its workplace reputation, which has been described as tough -- even brutal, says Levi Segal, a partner in the talent, reward and performance practice at Aon Hewitt in Stamford, Conn.
Still, he says, HR would be better off investing time in the company's best performers since research has shown that top performers provide exponentially greater economic value for their employer than low performers.
"We all know what really good [workers] look like or workers with potential," Segal says. "I'd rather identify those people and give them the career coach rather than the ones who aren't producing."
This approach, he says, can be applied to hourly workers who are perceived by their boss as high potentials, even future leaders. By investing in this population or nourishing them, he says, companies can reduce turnover among high potentials and position themselves as an employer of choice.
"That's where you should be spending your energy," says Segal. "That's where you're going to get the biggest bang for your buck."
Likewise, this strategy can also help HR professionals be perceived as true business partners by the company's management or executive team. HR's role as employee advocates often conflicts with its role as business partner, Segal says. In order to drive real business value, he says, HR needs to think like a business partner instead of a defense attorney for employees. Although the concept behind such programs "is great," says Segal, adding they are typically offered to low performers for legal reasons, to demonstrate that a company has made an effort to salvage employees before letting them go.
But if a company still wants to target low performers, Segal says, HR needs to communicate it as a real performance improvement process. It needs to find quick wins where low performers were actually transformed into solid workers, he says, and then market their success stories throughout the workforce. Otherwise, employees placed in such programs will lack the motivation to change because they feel it's too late to save their job, turning opportunity into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"When you're at this point, many times the employee and employer have [both] checked out," says Mary Beth Hartleb, CEO at Prism Global Management Group, a global HR consulting firm in Henderson, Nev. "Most employees are savvy and know this is their last effort."
She believes a better approach is for companies to invest on the front end of the employment cycle through effective hiring and selection processes, employee orientation, coaching or mentoring, and training programs. Consider pairing new hires with role model employees who can help them develop effective and productive work habits early on, she says.
Many times, she says, poor work performance is the result of personality clashes or someone placed in the wrong job. Under these circumstances, coaching may be ineffective. What sometimes works, she says, is transferring these employees to another position or department. All of a sudden, their performance dramatically improves.
"There are so many variables when dealing with human beings," Hartleb says, pointing to culture fit as another example. "Invest your money and time upfront so you don't even get to this point."
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