Managing poor performance on shop floor

Despite union environment, managers can step up and speak out
By Cy Charney
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/15/2011

When it comes to managing unionized people, there is a continuous philosophical battle between people who are from the labour relations school of management and those from the employee relations school. Both have different strategies that, in turn, have enormous implications for organizational performance.

The labour relations school takes a tough line in dealing with a union and its members. Managers are trained to follow the letter of the collective agreement and discipline anyone who breaches the rules and guidelines set out in the contract.

That could mean every time an employee arrives five minutes late from a break, she should expect a verbal warning from her supervisor that will then be noted in the employee’s file. How would this impact the relationships between managers and employees? Negatively, for sure. The employee would most likely view the manager as unreasonable. After all, if she came five minutes early, would she get a pat on the back? Not likely.

The employee relations approach to the challenge of working with unionized employees takes a relationship perspective. Why? At the end of the day, the measure of success is performance. An employer will see better quality and productivity in a collaborative environment than a poisonous one. And relying too heavily on discipline, micro-managing and punitive rules and regulations to keep employees in line will ultimately sour relationships and lead to poor outcomes. Simply put, you get more from honey than vinegar.

Does this mean we should not hold employees accountable? No. But it’s a small minority of people who typically underperform and need to be dealt with before they damage a productive environment. Failure to deal with them will ensure a manager is perceived as weak and ineffective and could allow others to follow suit.

Most managers are intimidated and afraid to mete out discipline. They avoid this action for three reasons:

•They have not been trained to do it properly.

•They fear turning the work environment into a war zone.

•They are often left unsupported by their labour relations advisor.

Using a one-size-fits-all formula to deal with union employees is folly. Much depends on an organization’s relationship with the union, the philosophy of the union towards management, the state of the current contract and the history of dealing with grievances.

There is an alternative that works in many situations: Build a climate that reduces the need to confront underperforming employees by treating them in a way that changes their attitude from negative to positive. Here are 10 actions to improve the performance of underperforming employees:

Never allow employees to get away with poor performance. Let them know about your expectations and concerns when they have not been met — and do it right away. Most people value feedback and constructive feedback is never the same as discipline. Discipline is formal, recorded and typically done in the presence of a shop steward. Constructive feedback, on the other hand, is an informal, solution-focused discussion that ends with a mutually agreed-to action plan. It contains many agreements — about having the conversation, the actual issue and a plan of action. It’s focused on the issue rather than the person, but must always be done in a way that maintains self-esteem.

Expect the most of employees. View them all as capable of performing at a higher level and treat them as if this were the case. This way, you are more likely to work with them as a partner. With this approach, you will be more open to their suggestions, share information readily and acknowledge their contribution. You will also take a problem-solving approach to downturns in performance and look to fix the problem rather than seek out someone to blame. This positive attitude will not guarantee all employees will rise to the challenge, but most will when they feel like they are being treated as partners. Those who don’t meet reasonable expectations because of negative attitude issues should be dealt with according to the consequences laid out in the contract and not shuffled around the organization so they can continue to spread their poisonous attitudes elsewhere.

Challenge employees. Engage them in setting goals and planning to achieve higher levels of performance. Problem solve with them formally or informally when problems occur and recognize progress.

Work on relationships. Don’t just wander around and smile at employees. Stop and chat with them so they sense you have a genuine interest in who they are as much as what they do. Find something in common with each person, such as sports, hobbies, kids or a love of food.

Develop performance standards with employees. The more employees are involved in setting standards, the greater the chances of buy-in.

Recognize improvement in performance. Never let good work and improvements go unnoticed.

Be consistent. As tempting as it is, avoid favouritism. Treat each employee fairly and equally.

Be clear about when discipline is necessary. The contract will specify the conditions under which discipline will be required. Managers should know them and be sure to apply the appropriate action when required. This will ensure an employee is not confronted about petty issues. These are best dealt with through an informal, assertive conversation.

Deal with issues. Many managers throw their hands up in frustration regarding the lack of flexibility that sometimes exists in a contract. For front-line managers, it’s best to focus on things they can have some control over — their attitude and behaviour. No matter how poisonous a work environment, a manager has the power to maintain cordial and productive relationships with team members.

Stay the course. Don’t treat this new approach as a program to be dumped if it doesn’t show remarkable improvements overnight. Maintain a positive approach until it becomes a part of the culture. Change is not easy for anyone. Even if the climate in an organization is counter-productive, don’t get sucked in to negativity. Persistence will pay off, richly.

Managing people is both an art and a science. Managers have an enormous responsibility because they have a significant influence over the quality of lives of their employees. Many employees leave an organization because of the relationship with their immediate boss. The challenge is to make the effort to bring out the best in employees, even those whose attitude seems to be counter-productive.

Cy Charney is president of Charney and Associates and founder of The Leadership Institute. He is the author of Just-in-Time Management: Over 950 Lessons Your MBA Professor Didn’t Teach You. He can be reached at

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