Providing Performance Guidance In Retail

Providing Performance Guidance In Retail

This is not the first post I have done on performance feedback, candor, and guidance and it probably won’t be the last because it is such a common “miss” inside retail that is hurting the industry.

I grew up with a father who was an amazing business man who also happened to be a labor attorney – though inventing and business were his passions and where he found his success – that didn’t stop him from keeping up with employment/labor law and sharing what he learned with me as I was growing up, and how it translated to the business world. I have always maintained an interest in keeping up with “retail impacting” employment law stories and developments and, daily, read blogs to keep myself up-to-date on issues, laws, rules, and regulations.

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Recently, I was browsing Employment Law Daily News, and came across an article that, though outside of the retail industry, is still an issue that is extremely prevalent in retail. Here is the summary:

Fired salesman will proceed with claim against company and PEO for unpaid accrued vacation

  • A former sales director who filed suit under state law for vacation time he had accrued before his discharge, for cause;
  • The employee handbook failed to define termination “for cause” and was also ambiguous with respect to which instances warranted accrued vacation pay and which did not;
  • Handbook is unclear: The court concluded that the employee raised a material issue of fact with respect to whether he was owed the accrued vacation pay. According to the employee handbook, which had been incorporated into the offer letter given to the employee, if the plaintiff was terminated “for cause” he could lose remaining unused paid time off. However, no definition of “for cause” was given and, in its absence, the court found itself unable to determine what it meant;
  • Was his performance actually poor? In this case, although it was clear that the reason given for the employee’s discharge was his poor performance, the court concluded that there was disagreement between the parties over whether his performance was actually poor. The employer pointed to the year-end review, but that document was internally inconsistent. Although it contained statements about the employee’s sales falling short, there were also many positive statements about his work and he was deemed an “asset” to his team. The employee received a two-percent raise following the review. Correspondence following that review did not provide a clearer answer. A reasonable fact-finder could conclude that it was not the employee’s performance that led to his discharge.

In that bolded, italicized portion of the final bullet point lies a very common challenge in retail. We have issues with employee’s performances and results but because we lack the courage to deal with them or address them before they become bigger issues – we soften the issues [especially if your organization is still using the outdated and ineffective annual or semi-annual performance appraisal process] because we, as retail leaders, either (a) don’t know how to address the problems or (b) are scared of creating conflict or creating potential confrontation.  So we say they are “good enough” and give them a raise – when they probably shouldn’t even have a job. I have never stepped into a region where the poorest performers had anything less than a “meets” performance appraisal.

The above referenced suit is still in the courts but the big issue is “the court denied the employer’s motion with respect to the employee’s breach of contract claim because of the existence of a genuine issue of material fact, it granted the motion with respect to his fraud/misrepresentation claim. The employee failed to point to evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could find that a material misrepresentation had been made. The court also granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim for conversion—the employee did not oppose the argument and agreed to turn over his laptop.”

Clearly, there was a serious issue with this employee but because the person(s) handling this issue clearly were lacking any courage to address the issues and Human Resources kept their policies ambiguous [probably thinking it would benefit the organization]; now, this employee has a case to get paid his accrued vacation time that his state is not required to pay out when people are terminated, if it is not their organization’s policies – which, remember was ambiguously outlined.

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Not providing performance feedback through dialogs that are honest and balanced is a mistake. The benefits, however, to providing a culture that is conducive to providing and accepting on-going, in the moment, and consistent feedback are abundant. Both common sense and research make it clear: Formative assessment, consisting of lots of feedback and opportunities to use that feedback, enhances performance and achievement. Feedback, by the way, is both positive and opportunity driven. Reward and recognition is form of leadership guidance. And addressing behaviors or performance opportunities is another. They both relate to the goals of a task they are working on or a business objective. It can’t be one or the other…it has to be a balance of both for it to be fair and deemed of value by the recipient.

Feedback Essentials

Truly useful feedback contains these unique components: It is goal-referenced; tangible and transparent; actionable; user-friendly (specific and personalized); timely; ongoing; and consistent. All of these things, all of the time!

  • Goal Referenced: Effective feedback requires that a person has a goal, takes action to achieve the goal, and receives goal-related information about his or her actions.
  • Tangible & Transparent: A useful feedback process involves not only a clear goal, but also tangible results related to the goal. Sometimes, even when the information is tangible and transparent, the retail team members don’t identify it—either because they don’t know exactly what to look for [paralysis by analysis – if your organization overwhelms with reporting or in some cases they don’t deliver reports that effectively help drive the business] or because they are too busy performing to focus on the effects. New retail managers often fall into the latter. They are trying to make an impact but they aren’t stopping to assess what is working and what isn’t.
  • Actionable: Effective feedback is concrete, specific, and useful; it provides actionable information for the retail team member to measure their success or lack thereof. Hence, “Good job!” and “You did that wrong” are absolutely not actionable or valuable feedback outside of a momentary feeling. What specifically should they do more or less of next time, based on this information? They don’t know what was “good” or “wrong” about what they did unless we are specific to the goal and objective.
  • User-Friendly: Even if feedback is specific and accurate in the eyes of experts or bystanders, it is not of much value if the user cannot understand it or is overwhelmed by it. Highly technical feedback will seem odd and confusing to a novice.  For example: spending time explaining the detail of your organization’s supply chain process to a part time, seasonal sales associate will not yield a better customer experience delivery on their part. Too much or irrelevant guidance/feedback can be critically counterproductive. It is much better to help the team member concentrate on only one or two key pieces of their performance than to create a barrage of information they are unable prioritize or process.
  • Timely: As it stands today in many retail organizations, vital feedback on key performances often comes days, weeks, or even months after the desired performance results. Making it historical and ineffective for the receiver of the feedback. Providing in-the-moment, timely feedback can support the immediate improvement of performance. Providing immediate recognition for specific accomplishments keeps the feedback applicable and creates motivation and enthusiasm for the recipient.

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  • On-Going: Adjusting our performance depends on not only receiving feedback but also having opportunities to use that feedback. What makes any assessment in retail formative is not simply that it precedes quarterly formal feedback dialogs, but that the team member has opportunities, if results are below performance standards, to reshape their performance to better achieve their goal. If we wait for formal assessments, the feedback comes too late; the performance is already past. Retail team members are often judged on their ability to adapt to provided feedback. The ability to quickly adapt one’s performance is a mark of all great achievers and problem solvers and a great competency for retail leadership!
  • Consistent: To be useful, feedback must be consistent. Clearly, retail team members can only adjust their performance successfully if the information fed back to them is coming from an honest and trustworthy source who is committed to their career growth and success.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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