Make It Public Or Keep It Private

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.



A business owner from Kentucky called me the other day to talk about his Landscape Maintenance Manager, whose performance continues to miss expectations, plateauing at a low level across several key metrics:  lack of enhancements sales, inadequate departmental gross margin, unacceptable job quality, and not adding significant value to the company culture.

Like most landscapers, the owner was actively reluctant to terminate the manager for multiple reasons:

  • He has idealized hope the manager will ultimately turn things around and become a valued asset,
  • The paradoxical “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know” mindset,
  • He does not want a managerial dismissal to affect his unemployment rating index with the state,
  • If he terminates the manager, the company will likely spend several months trying to replace him,
  • The owner indirectly conveyed he, personally, does not like to fire employees, especially managers,
  • With a vacant managerial position, the owner will have to fill that position himself on an interim basis,
  • And of course, “You have to understand Steve, he really is a nice guy, who tries really hard.”

When pressed, the business owner admitted he has had several “coaching” sessions with the manager during which the topic of failing to achieve key business goals was discussed.

Acknowledging that the cover charge had now seemingly been paid, I said “fire him today.”

His silence implied hesitation.

Obviously, he is the business owner and I support his decision-making process on behalf of his company’s best interests.  100%!  I really do.  I advise; he decides.

Okay.  So now that we have discussed the manager’s poor performance, passively accepting the owner’s recalcitrance against conducting a termination, we now must move into the coaching mode providing additional feedback to the manager, continuing to hope for the best.  The business owner’s barely audible grunt over the phone implied consent.

Our dialogue then pursued the standard linear Performance Improvement Plan methodology:  business goals, performance expectations, efficacious behaviors, achievement timelines, and one-on-one follow-up meetings, with all details being documented, of course.  As part of that conversation, I reminded the business owner of a salient, albeit unwritten rule of performance management:

  • If it’s positive, make it public; if it’s punitive, keep it private.

Speaking illustratively, whenever an employee performs a satisfactory, noteworthy, or superlative behavior commemorate it in front of as many employees as possible:  at a Rewards and Recognition ceremony, in a company-wide e-mail, on the company web-site, at the end of the workday in which it was performed before everyone leaves the yard or office.  This public tribute unequivocally identifies those employee actions that the company indelibly cherishes, appreciates, and rewards.  The vertical role modeling circulating through the company culture has become reality, soon to be reinforced and repeated.

Conversely, when an employee makes a mistake, does something wrong, or fails, keep punitive feedback private, only between the supervisor and employee.  Humiliation is not honor!  As an aside, I told this point to a different business owner years ago, who told me I was wrong, because he has “high standards” and wanted to highlight the employee’s poor performance in public by making “an example” of the employee.

I told him he was “an idiot.”

What do you think that “example” tells other employees about their company culture?

Better still:  What do you think that “example” tells the employees about their business owner?

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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.