How Do I: Manage a Remote Underperformer?

We all know that COVID is not going away any time soon.  Many people managers are evaluating performance remotely for the first time in their careers.  This blog post is intended to offer some practical suggestions to help managers address the challenge of managing difficult performance situations remotely.

Are the Basics in Place

Assure that all your direct reports actually have written performance objectives.  If one or more do not, clarify and document those objectives.  While this post is not about writing objectives, the tried and true approach to preparing performance objectives is typically known as SMART: 

  • Specific – each objective is characterized by clear criteria for success
  • Measurable – the objective can be objectively quantified
  • Achievable – a reasonable person would agree that the objective can be attained
  • Relevant – the objective is appropriate to the employee’s role and experience level
  • Timebound – the objective is to be attained by a particular point in time

By the way, if you are a manager of managers, it’s a good idea to make sure your managers have gone through a similar exercise with their people.

Reality Check

The world has changed for many, if not most employees and their managers.  Therefore, the first action we suggest after confirming a set of objectives actually exists is to revisit those objectives with the employee.  In reviewing those objectives together, test to make sure they remain relevant and can be achieved under the circumstances.  Is everything clear?  Do you and the employee share a common understanding of the expectations and deliverables behind the words of the document?  If the objectives need to be adjusted, that’s okay.  Performance plans should be thought of as living documents, in any event.  Business conditions change all the time.  The current conditions are an extreme example but changing environments are not unusual.

What’s Going On?

Engage in a conversation with your underperforming employee.  If this is the first time you are observing underperformance, you should seek to understand if something unusual is affecting the employee’s ability to successfully deliver.  With so many people juggling a variety of care responsibilities with work obligations, some flexibility in the nature of and/or timing of deliverables may easily address the problem.  You may need to help manage expectations others may have of this employee in order to accommodate more flexibility.  This is a judgement call you’ll need to make.  That’s why you’re the manager.

On the other hand, if this is the latest manifestation of a previously known performance challenge the key next action is to be constructively candid with the employee about your observations.  A simple, 4-step approach that works well is to

  • Identify (name) the issue
  • Explain why it is important
  • Demonstrate with one or more examples how the employee’s lack of success impacts others or the business
  • Clearly describe what change you expect and when or how (or both)

Document

Nobody likes to do this.  It takes time, it’s not fun, and feels uncomfortable.  But it’s important to codify those actions to which you and your employee have agreed.  The agreements you have reached become the basis for follow on actions.  It confirms there is a shared understanding of your mutual expectations.  To further verify you and the employee have a shared understanding, I like to have the employee prepare the documentation for your subsequent review and discussion. 

By having the employee prepare the agreed actions, you attain greater certainty that there is no misunderstanding.  I typically will ask the employee to send a draft of the document within 24 hours.  If everything is consistent with your discussion, then all you have to do is confirm receipt and agreement.  Otherwise you have the opportunity to promptly renew the discussion and reach clear shared understanding.

Follow Up

Most managers have regularly scheduled check-ins with their employees.   If you don’t already, get on regular a schedule with this employee. Make the scheduling appropriate to the work to be done and the time sensitivity of that work.   Be sure to review the action plan (documentation) at each catch up to evaluate the employee’s progress. Doing this consistently creates structure and accountability around your expectations.  Although it’s okay to adjust the action plan if appropriate, be cautious.  A constantly shifting set of objectives will make it that much more difficult to attain a satisfactory outcome – for both you and the employee.

Closing Out

Once the employee is back on track, confirm to each other that the objectives have been met to each other’s satisfaction.  All things being equal, you should now be able to resume a more routine check-in and performance monitoring relationship.

Final Thoughts

The suggestions presented here are necessarily generic.  There can be many variations of performance challenges and each may require a different approach.  Please contact me if you or a colleague want to discuss your unique situation.

What Does it Really Mean to be a Strategic HR Business Partner?

Part 1 of ??

Our introductory article laid out the foundation of today’s HR Business Partner role.  In this post, we begin to identify and explain the critical capabilities an HR Business Partner needs in order to excel at the job.


Many HR Business Partners (HRBP) don’t start their careers in these roles.  Frequently, they have succeeded in one or more of the HR sub-disciplines and have grown, over time, into the HRBP role. This article presumes the HRBP already possesses subject matter expertise in one or more of those sub-disciplines.   To be genuinely successful as an HRBP, several additional critical capabilities are required.  This post begins a discussion of those capabilities.

Understanding the Business

This does not mean you have to know how to be a salesperson (more on this in later posts) or know how to design a product.  It does mean that the HRBP must have a solid understanding of the business.  You can translate that vague statement into a series of questions:

  • How does your company make money?
  • What is the organization’s business strategy?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • What risks and opportunities does your organization face in its microenvironment (think of your office, plant, or other business unit)?
  • What are the risks and opportunities in the macro environment (think of your industry and the broader economy)?
  • What capabilities can be deployed against those risks and opportunities?
  • Are critical capabilities missing and if so, how should that gap be mitigated?

The list could go on at some length but you get the idea.  Understanding the basics of your business and the environment in which it operates is table stakes for being effective as an HRBP.  This is because in most cases, your clients want to partner with someone who “gets it”.  Demonstrating a solid understanding of your customer’s business is a key differentiator between a transactional HRBP and a trusted advisor.  So, how do you build business knowledge?

Start by listening.  Get time with the leaders you support.  Ask them to help you build deeper awareness about their part of the business.  What keeps them awake at night?  Whose opinions do they respect?  Understand how decisions are made in the organization.  Who gets consulted on what kinds of decisions? Who are the key players on their teams and why?  Get time with those people and ask similar questions.  Frequently, these key players exercise a great deal of informal influence. 

After your initial round of meetings, summarize your new insights in a document.  Use whatever format works best for you and how your brain works but it should include at a minimum:

  • Who and their official role
  • What are their business objectives?
  • What does a day in their life look like?
  • Who do they talk to and why?
  • What are their challenges and opportunities?
  • Think about their personal style – do you prefer to communicate by email or in live conversations?

You may have noticed that none of this is about the HR function.  You will have plenty of opportunity to engage about HR matters.  But that is not the starting point to build a relationship with your customers.  This inquiry is about them, their parts of the business, and their pain points so those insights can inform your agenda and how you can add value to their world.

For the sake of this post, let’s assume your client is the organization’s CFO.  There are some basic things you should be able to do to engage with your client.

  • Can you read the organization’s balance sheet?
  • Is your industry stable or is it vulnerable to disruption?
  • Do you understand the key cost drivers in the business?
  • What are the challenges in attaining the business plan?
  • Are there external influences that represent either costs or risks to the organization – examples could include things like regulatory requirements or multi-state/cross-border employment-related matters.

These are discussion-starters to enable your relationship with the CFO.  S/he/they will want to see that you understand the challenges they face on a regular basis and in the context of their job. Successfully executing on this critical first step is what will get you in the door with your client, engendering their trust and leading to them involving you in evermore consequential issues.  Next it is time to deliver.

Delivering on Your Commitments

You have established initial credibility with your client.  Congratulations.  Notice we said initial.  All the hard work of listening to and understanding the fundamentals of your business will be for naught unless your client also thinks that s/he/they can depend on you.  This is also where you begin to distinguish yourself as a partner instead of an “order-taker”. 

Let’s visit that point for a moment.  As you will see as the rest of this series develops, we will assert that truly exceptional HRBP’s have established a level of credibility and trust where their perspective is sought out within the organization at all levels.  Like most things, there is a continuum.  Many people have excellent careers by being superb at delivering what the client wants when and how the client wants it.  Our exceptional HRBP does that too – when it is the right thing to do for the business; not sometimes, all the time.  Thus, the exceptional HRBP is a business professional who specializes in the human capital dimension of running a business.

In the typical HRBP/COE model, the HRBP is the primary HR point of contact for a business leader.  To fulfill their role, the HRBP must establish and nurture partnerships with the COE’s.  This is why it can be so valuable for the HRBP to have spent part of their career in one or more COE roles. 

In our next entry we will:

  • expand on the importance of delivering and begin an exploration of the HRBP-COE relationship,
  • the conditions that lead a successful HRBP-COE partnership,
  • and some common pitfalls we have observed that can undermine the delivery of effective HR solutions.

About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

 He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

The Human Resources Business Partner Revolution: Mirage or Unfinished Business?

As two long-time HR practitioners, we have spent a great deal of time reflecting on HR’s role in not only supporting an organization or a business, but its role in adding significant value as measured by business metrics.    This is the lens through which we are writing and sharing this series of blog posts.  In exploring this topic we came to the conclusion that the phrase, “business partner” is used too often without a clear understanding of what it means.  We will examine the phenomenon of how a staff function like HR can contribute in a way that transcends merely providing operational and administrative support. We start our series with a brief exploration of how the HRBP concept came into being and how it has evolved in practice. We invite readers to reflect on their own experience and to share experiences related to the subjects we address.


A familiar mantra is that HR needs to be more strategic. We have been hearing this from HR experts and scholars, practitioners, and senior level executives for years and years. Yet, it remains, like the proverbial carrot on a stick urging the donkey (with all due respect to the HR profession) ever forward, but never enjoying the sweet taste of fulfillment.

Much has been written about what being strategic means and how to achieve it. Most would agree that David Ulrich deserves the credit for giving voice to this concept more than 20 years ago in his book, “Human Resource Champions : The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results” he advocated for a shift from transactional and administrative HR activities to a more strategic and business-centric approach. The basic principles for transforming HR included:

  • Creating an organization design with a unified structure that delivers value to the business, not just service;
  • Defining clear roles for HR that are competency-based and used to build and grow a sophisticated set of skills; and,
  • Measuring a company’s performance on HR dimensions with business metrics, or often oversimplified as “speaking the language of the business”

Some have likened this shift to that made by Finance, Marketing, IT and most recently, Data Analytics functions, that has reframed them as disciplines with sophisticated tools and methods that contribute to creating competitive advantage for the organization.

Ulrich’s ideas were seized upon enthusiastically. Scholars, trade and professional associations, and practitioners all jumped on the strategic HR bandwagon. A generation of HR professionals took up the challenge. For HR itself, this signaled a means to assess, codify, and better deploy roles in the administrative, compliance, and advice-giving domains of HR.  The objective has been to achieve a degree of synergy that delivered greater value to the organization than the sum of the individual components.

Along the way, the concept of “business partnership” became oversimplified and singularly applied to a specific role, the Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP), in many cases formerly known as HR Generalist. This new HRBP role was suddenly expected to bear the full burden of “being strategic” by getting close to the business, understanding its needs, and adapting centralized HR programs and practices to bespoke business solutions. In the August 22, 2016 of HR Magazine, Jenny Roper observes:

 “The biggest failure to stay vigilant in truly optimizing the Ulrich model…is that…HR managers are being expected to magically transform into truly strategic, consultative business partners overnight.”

Some believe the original intent of Ulrich’s model was oversimplified through the creation of a role-based solution.  Many others (including ourselves) believe that some in the profession misunderstood that Ulrich’s model was intended to function holistically.  And, some organizations have cherry-picked parts of the model and overspecialized others.  Roper goes on to say:

People too often see the structure part of [Ulrich’s] theories as a ‘solution’ – something which, once implemented, will automatically deliver brilliant HR. As with anything, the reality is of course much more nuanced. As with anything, it’s often not what you do, but how – or rather how intelligently – you do it.”

A third criticism cited by scholars such as John Boudreau of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, is that HR practices, in part due to the over-specialization of the HRBP and Center of Expertise (COE) roles, have become too standardized. Rather than providing solutions specifically tailored to the needs of the business, over-specialization has bred a “vending machine” mentality where standard products and services are doled out based on superficial diagnoses of root causes.

In summary, we believe that: 1) expecting one role -that of the HRBP- to be the sole mechanism to deliver business value; 2) applying the Ulrich model selectively or ineffectively; and, 3) overspecialization leading to the need for better integration of efforts to diagnose and prescribe solutions, have played an outsized role in keeping HR from delivering upon the promise of Ulrich’s vision.

Our next post will pick up with a deeper exploration of the HRBP role.  We will examine what it takes to understand the aims of a given business and apply HR expertise in a way that delivers genuine business value.


About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. 

Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

How Do I: Conduct Effective Remote One to One Meetings?

We all know the world is different. Some employees are struggling with the challenges of balancing family and work life in ways they never expected.  This is especially true if your employees have children or others for whom they provide care at home.  Other employees are fine and will be perfectly happy to work remotely for a long time if not forever. Since many of you no longer see your employees on a daily basis, productive and effective one to one discussions are more important than ever.  This post is intended to offer some practical tips to help make your remote discussions more productive.

Start your conversations with attention to your people as individuals.  Don’t jump into whatever business matter is at the top of your mind.  Some of the discussion starters you can use include:

  • How are you?
  • How is your family?
  • Is everyone safe?
  • What, if any, challenges are you facing in doing your job?
  • What is working/what is not?
  • What help do you need from me/ the company?

These discussion starters are intended to establish and/or reinforce the human connection with your employee.  Listen to their answers carefully.  Doing so will give you immediate insights and should guide the rest of your discussion.  For example, if it is clear the employee is stressed out then try to use your time together to discover the root cause.  If it is a business matter, find ways to help.  If there is a personal matter that is causing high levels of stress, encourage the employee to seek some professional help.  If your company has an Employee Assistance Program, encourage him/her to avail themselves of that resource.

Once you have established that personal connection, it’s time to move on to your business agenda.  In more than 30 years of managing remote teams, I have found it is very useful to have a standard agenda for one to one meetings.  Especially in these times, predictability is a good thing.

  • When possible, send an agenda in advance.  Of course, it’s perfectly fine if your employee establishes a regular agenda or that you do so collaboratively.
  • Usually, you should try to keep these discussions to a maximum of 45 minutes.  That’s about as long as anyone can focus without a break.  And that is especially true if there are many or controversial items to discuss.  There will certainly be situations where more time and/or a follow up discussion will be appropriate.  But as a general rule, 45 minutes works well.
  • Use technology.  There are many free or inexpensive video conferencing tools available to us.  If you have a company video capability, use that.  It likely has the security needed to protect your business.  If you are using a commercially available videoconference tool, make sure only those you have invited have the access code to attend your meeting.
  • Make sure you have adequate lighting.  If there is a window behind you, sunlight will wash out your image making it difficult for your employee to read your body language.
  • Try to be in a quiet place to minimize the distractions of ambient noises.  But if your dog or cat wanders into the video, enjoy it. I have encouraged colleagues to let a child sit on their lap and say hello if the toddler is demanding attention.  Be human.  Be real.
  • Allow time to wrap up, summarize agreements, and confirm next steps including the timing of your next one to one.

       This post assumes your employee is a satisfactory or better performer and there are no big business problems. Most leaders have, at times, needed to manage unsatisfactory performance.  Conducting effective remote one to one meetings with an employee who is struggling is another matter that we’ll address in the next post.

To speak with me about managing remote one to ones or other people leadership challenges, reach out to me in any of the following ways

What Do I Do?

My employee refuses to return to work.

This is the first article in a planned “What do I do” series.  Our objective is to provide practical “answers for real world” and to offer other considerations to address a variety of employment-related questions.  This is not legal guidance and readers should consult employment counsel before taking any actions. 

The situation

All our exempt employees accepted a 20% pay reduction due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have been working from their homes.  Our state recognizes the pay reduction as establishing eligibility for proportional unemployment benefits.  We recently reopened our office but the pay adjustments remain in place due to ongoing business impacts.  We are generally following all the CDC safety protocols.  But you know, this is hard and we’re not perfect.

First things first: Talk to Bob

You need to understand his reasons for not returning to the office. Full mutual transparency is key to achieving a satisfactory outcome.  It’s possible that some of Bob’s reasons are or may be legally protected. 

  • In an increasingly common situation, Bob has a family member with an underlying medical condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.    On June 11, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) addressed this matter as it relates to ADA accommodations.  In brief, the EEOC concluded there is no obligation to provide an Americans with Disability Act (ADA) accommodation or leave to an employee who has a family member at high risk of contracting COVID.  The EEOC went on to say that the employer is not required to make an ADA accommodation for teleworking, either.  However, the EEOC did say that employers can consider granting a personal leave.  But employers are not obligated to guarantee a job upon the leave’s expiration.  Depending on the employer’s state, Bob may or may not be eligible for unemployment benefits under these circumstances.
  • If Bob asserts you (as the employer) have not created an adequately safe working environment, he may be protected under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA).
  • The Families First Corona Virus Response Act (FFCRA) contains provisions to provide protected leave for certain conditions such as childcare needs, personal illness, or caring for others who have tested positive for the virus.  Some states have passed legislation defining additional protected conditions.

On the other hand, if Bob refuses to return to work out of a generalized fear of COVID, he is likely not protected. 

Should we terminate Bob’s employment?

It depends.  Some of the questions to consider include:

  • Can I demonstrate a good faith effort to accommodate Bob?
  • What is the business impact if Bob does not come back to the office?
  • How does Bob’s continued absence impact other employees?
  • What are the implications to our employment brand if we let Bob go?
  • How will we respond if Bob files for unemployment benefits?
  • What are others in my industry or locale doing in similar situations?
  • What will we say when other employees ask what happened to Bob?
Document, document, document
  • The details of your request to return to the office
  • Bob’s reasons for refusing to return
  • Your attempts to provide accommodation
  • The company’s efforts to create a safe working environment for all employees

If you are participating in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) you will need to be able to address these points at a minimum.  Also, many states are requiring employers to report refusals to return to work.  Thorough documentation will be critical if Bob seeks protection under any of the possible circumstances described in this post.

Bottom line

Bob is probably not unique.  As a responsible employer and before taking any actions, you have a duty to understand the circumstances that have led to this situation. Beyond fulfilling your legal obligations, society will expect you to be reasonable, empathetic, and accommodating where possible.  However, you still have a business to run and accommodations need to be balanced against the implications and costs of your accommodations.

End Note

This is a quickly evolving area of administrative law so employers are advised to closely monitor new guidance from key agencies such as the US Department of Labor and the EEOC.

Was this article useful?  Would you like to discuss this subject or some other Human Resources challenge you are facing?  Send an email to ken@somershrsolutions.com to schedule a complimentary conversation.