When Does Performance Management Become Harassment?

Posted - April 29, 2015

As a workplace investigator I am often asked to look into complaints of alleged harassment that stem from performance management issues. Employees who do not recognize their own performance deficiencies, or resent managerial intervention, can sometimes perceive reasonable and fair actions as harassing. On the flipside, if not handled in a fair and professional manner, managerial actions to address real performance issues can cross the line into harassment.

So where is that line? When does performance management become harassment? The following information will help supervisors and managers addressing performance issues, as well as the employees receiving that feedback, to recognize when actions are appropriate, or potentially harassing.

Is the performance deficiency real?

The first thing to consider is whether the identified performance issues are fair, that is to say, can the concerns be substantiated through performance indicators and is the employee in question actually responsible for any real deficiency. Identifying concrete gaps and examples can help employees understand the deficiency and their accountability for it.

How is feedback on the employee’s performance delivered?

How feedback is delivered can greatly determine whether it is considered fair and reasonable managerial action, or vexatious and demeaning. For example, providing negative feedback on an employee’s performance in a group setting, even if that feedback is fair, can lead to that person feeling belittled and even humiliated. Feedback delivered in a one-on-one setting, however, helps protect the employee’s privacy and dignity. Likewise, reacting in frustration about an employee’s performance and delivering feedback in an angry or escalated tone is almost always unprofessional. Instead, waiting for frustration to pass to ensure feedback is delivered in a calm, professional manner can even help an employee be more receptive to that feedback.

Has the employee been given an opportunity to improve?

Repeatedly giving negative feedback, without offering guidance on how to improve, can leave an employee feeling devalued and harassed. A performance or learning plan, particularly if the employee has contributed to it, holds the employee accountable, but also gives firm direction on expectations for improvement. Should the employee continue to perform below expectations, a performance plan that includes clear performance and improvement indicators can help validate any subsequent disciplinary actions taken, including termination.

Have concerns about the employee’s performance been kept confidential?

While a manager might have a justifiable need to discuss an employee’s performance with other staff members, such as another manager or supervisor, unnecessarily sharing concerns with the employee’s peers could reasonably be perceived as demeaning and undermining. Only those individuals directly involved in helping manage the employee’s performance need to be privy to any issues or concerns in that regard.

Most workplace harassment policies stipulate that the reasonable exercise of management functions, such as providing constructive feedback or enforcing performance standards, is not considered harassment. However, managers are still expected to exercise those functions in a reasonable, fair, and respectful manner. Quite often while the message might be justified, the method used to deliver it was questionable, leading to complaints of harassment, even when the intent was not to harass.