I made a personal promise to Mark that I would post this to the forums a couple months ago, so I wanted to make good on that.
I have a current direct report who is actively undergoing chemotherapy. He has been fighting cancer and undergoing treatment for more than 2 years now. His attitude is amazing, and I have nothing but admiration for how he has weathered this.
When I inherited this direct report, no one had addressed the issue of his performance since his original diagnosis. Therefore, he had no formal performance goals or written feedback for 2+ years.
This was a difficult situation. Was he my strongest performing direct report? No. Was this understandable? Absolutely. How would I go about giving him performance feedback he could still use, while not appearing to "hold his illness against him?"
Oh yeah, one more thing...this was my first year as a manager with directs. Therefore, I was only getting used to doing performance reviews at all, much less handling such a loaded situation with tact and grace.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would approach this. I consulted many people on the issue (including Mark, thanks!), and got a wide range of input. Not much of it seemed to converge, unfortunately.
Some of the key factors were:
- The person. In this case, I have a highly coachable direct who takes constructive feedback very well. I was not worried about his ability to take feedback, even in this tough situation.
- My experience, on all fronts. First time doing reviews, first time reviewing this direct, first time handling medical issues with a direct.
- Company "direction." Most at the company were very uncomfortable with me trying to officially document his illness as part of his review, even if provided solely as "context" to that year's performance. This was viewed as risky and ripe for misinterpretation or use as ammunition.
- Performance. As mentioned, on a global scale, his performance was not where I'd like it. How much of this was due to capability, and how much was due to illness, I had no idea.
I decided to take the following approach for his review
- Give an honest, complete review, but with an even stronger filter on only the most urgent and necessary performance feedback. Some might feel I "softened" the review, but in some ways I may have simply tempered an already too-critical approach I normally take on reviews.
- I did not explicitly mention his illness in his written, documented feedback. Since I had limited by feedback to only the most urgent stuff, I didn't feel this was completely needed.
- LOTS of open, honest discussion in the review that I respected him for his situation, that his health and family must come first more than ever, and that I was _not_ interested in holding a microscope to his performance. I'm giving this guy the benefit of the doubt...and I decided that this was where I wanted to stand. If I'm wrong, I've done less harm than erring the other way and being perceived as evil and uncaring of my folks.
- (and this was the key) More open, honest conversation looking ahead to "sunny days" where, as his health improves, I would be working to gradually step back up responsibilities as he's ready. I outlined briefly some areas I'd point to in the future for growth, but did not formalize them.
To-date, the reaction from this direct has been outstanding. He took all feedback in the spirit it was offered, and have received no indication that I made him feel uncomfortable or pressured. He has actively pursued many more areas of improvement than I ever thought he'd pursue, which has validated the approach. He viewed the feedback as non-threatening, and took personal improvement as a challenge regardless of how accountable I was holding him. I think focusing on something other than the illness has been a huge benefit to him, and that has been key to making this work.
I don't profess that this would work for everyone. I also don't know if this approach will continue to work throughout his remission period (5+ years). However, right now, it seems to fit the bill. I'm driving some performance improvement (if limited), the employee seems to feel challenged yet treated fairly, and I have not crossed any lines that get me "unneeded attention" from other senior managers.
Any ideas how you would have done this differently? Have seen it handled better? Landmines in my path I haven't discovered yet? Please follow-up on this post and let the group know.
...and thanks Mark for the guidance on this one. While I didn't follow your advice to the letter this time, hopefully the compromise seems reasonable to you and keeps working in my application. Talk to you tomorrow at the conference.