Always Start with a Goal Reference

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.


A landscaper from California called me the other day looking for professional affirmation from me regarding his intent to write up one of his employees for various performance problems.  In other words, he wanted me to “rubber stamp” his written feedback on the company Corrective Discipline Form.  Obviously, it was this landscaper’s first rodeo.  Not mine.  But let’s move on.

Overwhelmed with zeal, bound by frustration, the landscaper began his feedback prose to me which stated “Jim has shown a bad attitude on several occasions, including…”

I did not give him a chance to finish the sentence which I am sure Shakespeare would have envied.

“Attitude” is a concept we all recognize.  Though it is difficult to prove when being sued.  Thus, I suggested to the landscaper that he replace the term “attitude” with specific behaviors that directly or indirectly prevented a business goal from being accomplished.  

Shakespeare’s quill suddenly ran out of ink.

With a question or two, I got the landscaper to identify several behaviors the employee did not perform to the desired standard.  First, the employee refused to complete various work assignments simply because they were begun by other employees.  Second, the employee had a history of making pejorative comments about his co-workers calling them “stupid,” “pigs,” and other terms not fit for this blog to repeat.  

That level of behavioral specificity brought a calm confidence to the cadence conveyed by the landscaper.  Didn’t somebody say something about a rodeo, earlier?  Nevertheless, beyond the script, I pivoted the conversation from content to delivery, by telling him that he was a “hater.”

Yes.  A “hater.”

In today’s unlimited litigious society, every employee is a victim.  If you don’t believe me, simply ask him, her, or their lawyer.  Once the litigation begins, the employee will be cast as the victim, and the landscaper will be characterized as exploiting some element of the victim’s, I mean employee’s, innocence.  According to the plaintiff lawyer’s inevitable opening argument to the jury, the landscaper solely and purposefully chose to write up the employee due to the employee’s race, gender, sexual preference, national origin, handicap status, etc.   The probative implication is that the landscaper had a personal vendetta against the employee, spawned by prejudice, bigotry, and yes, “hate.”

To minimize the premature entrance of the legal rodeo clowns, I suggested the landscaper present the documentation to the employee, using a goal-oriented reference, that would essentially negate any personal attribution.  The goal-oriented reference reframes the premise of the constructive feedback as being job-related to an organizational outcome, not idiosyncratic to the employee’s personal qualities.

Aside from clearly being insubordinate, I suggested the landscaper inform the employee that “Based on the fact that this job had a labor goal of 3 hours to complete, which you were aware of, your refusal to complete the specific work assignment, prevented that labor goal from being accomplished, which led to unexpected overtime costs for that job.”  Similarly, regarding the critical language directed toward co-workers, I offered the following language to the landscaper: “Based on the company goal of ensuring a results-based team-oriented culture, as outlined in the company Employee Handbook, your repeated, offensive comments to and about your co-workers fail to contribute to that goal being achieved.”

With utmost humility, I am certain Shakespeare could have said it better.

But rest assured, this version will keep the rodeo clowns away.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.