HR leaders weigh in on how to manage non-performance during lockdown

This week's Community Conversation was about how to balance empathy with the need to drive output.

After many of the CHRO Community Conversations thus far focused on being sympathetic to employees working from home, the discussion this week turned to the subject of how to manage employees who are not collaborative, not productive or not coping and don't "get with the programme" during these unprecedented times.

CHRO SA managing director Joël Roerig opened the discussion by thanking Workday, who are partners for the Community Conversations, before handing over to the CHRO SA managing editor Sungula Nkabinde who opened the evenings topic of how to manage non-performance in the time of Covid-19.  

“While the need for employee support and engagement has heightened, there are surely still employees who may not collaborate as well as you would expect to during this time of lockdown and restrictions. How do you balance empathy with the need for the company to survive in a sustainable way?” asked Sungula.

Barloworld group HR director Tantaswa Fubu said that her team had not experienced any slacking down by their people during the lockdown. In fact, it was quite the opposite. She said people at Barloworld were working even harder during this time and that this could partly be because people are concerned about losing their jobs and want to prove their worth more than ever before.

“That said, not coping and not being productive can be two different things. One of the reasons for someone not being able to work productively can very well because their lockdown environment is not conducive to being productive. It is then imperative for the line manager to understand what is happening in that employee’s life before labelling the employee as being unproductive or non-performing,” she said.

She added: “For those who are not pulling their weight, I don’t believe Covid-19 and the lockdown means we should throw our performance management processes out of the window. In fact, I think with lockdown it is much easier to tell when someone is not delivering. People who have been able to hide behind smooth-talking, looking busy and getting others to do their work are now getting exposed. It is now about showing results instead of showing face.”

Training was needed

Preparing managers for this kind of environment was something that needed to happen from the onset as some may have needed training on how to manage people who are working remotely. McDonald’s South Africa’s chief people officer, Brigitte Da Gama said they had done a massive amount of communication in which they set the tone for what would be expected because they went into remote-working mode long before the national lockdown was implemented.

Back then, they made it clear that they would keep people in the loop and told them that sacrifices would have to be made.  

Said Brigitte: “We have ensured regular and robust communication with all our stakeholders, starting with our employees, in which we set the tone for what would be expected during this time. We have an app that allows everyone to be communicated to in real-time to facilitate this. We also conducted training on how to performance manage virtual teams. We also realised that exceptional and elevated leadership skills are very good to have.”

Treat people like human beings

Wesbank HR executive Phila Zondeki said It was important to be careful not to jump to labelling people as non-performers because, when lockdown started, all the research pointed to anxiety that people may be facing, “which as an HR leader, would direct you to play a more supportive role and performance relaxing the strict performance requirements that one has.

“How do you manage output with seeing someone face-to-face? If I go into the operations side of the business and I look at what the outcomes are looking like right, I think it’s likely that I would assume that a lot of people are not carrying their weight. But performance management needs to be based on clear and explicit objectives and deliverables that take into account the context of Covid-19.”  

She said that people would always follow what the leadership was doing and that, If the leadership was doing something that is contrary to what they say they expect, then there were bound to be employees who followed suit.

Ultimately, Tantaswa said performance management, even in times of Covid-19, is about treating people like human beings because they will then be more likely to open up about even the personal challenges they are facing. 

“We also have to be prepared to hear things that we are not prepared for, personal stuff and figure out how best to practically support our people. We should postpone labelling people as non-performers until we have understood their circumstances especially when we are dealing with people who are suddenly acting out of character,” adding that, if someone is a known performer, there must be a reason why they are now not performing in lockdown.