Managing Prima Donnas

Do you know what a Prima Donna is? Of course you do – in HR we bump up across them all the time. The employee who thinks the rules don’t apply to her. Or the one who thinks he brings so much to the company that he shouldn’t have to follow the rules. They question everything, always look for loopholes, and generally make HR (and everyone around them) a little crazy. The definition of this employee is: a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team. Dealing with this person is tough, but as HR we understand that we have to hold them accountable for the good of the team.

But there is another dictionary definition of Prima Donna, and this one is much tougher to handle: a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization. The Prima Donna is the lead. She’s the fat lady that has to sing before the opera can end. The show revolves around her. And she can be the toughest employee to deal with, because she honestly does bring so much to the organization.

You know who I’m talking about. The sales rep who brings in three times the revenue of the rest of the team. The consultant that every client asks for by name. The mechanic who can fix any problem on any car, no matter what. These are the super-talented individuals that become part of your corporate differentiation – they make significant contributions to your business. But… maybe they don’t come to work on time. Or they think mandatory meetings are for everyone else. Their reports are sloppy, or incomplete. Things you might not let slide for your average employee, but these folks are, in some major ways, above average.

Prima Donnas remind me of a kid who never does her homework but aces every test. The teacher doesn’t want to give her an A, and yet…  We want to hold them accountable, but we also don’t want to lose them over a nonessential issue. So what if they are 30 minutes late every day, if they are producing more work than every coworker? But wait – what if those coworkers become disgruntled over your show of favoritism?

What do you do? Do you hold them to the same performance measures as everyone else? Do you let them slide on some things, but not on others? Do you let them get away with everything? It’s a delicate negotiating balance between the bottom line contributions and overall company morale.

Sometimes, you can give that Prima Donna some special exceptions, especially when their contribution is clearly evident. People complain that the top sales rep skips meetings? Tell them when they equal his revenue they will be excused from meetings, too. Of course, if the meeting is so non-essential that you don’t mind him missing it, you might want to rethink whether the meeting is necessary at all.

But sometimes their extra value is less obvious, or the exceptions they want are unreasonable. It’s important to remember that, in the end, no one is irreplaceable. If the overall impact to the team becomes so negative that overall performance suffers, then one Prima Donna’s performance won’t be enough to carry the company.

What is HR’s role in this performance management? How do you counsel the Prima Donna’s manager? I’ve not found an easy answer, have you?


Can we close the door?

I attended a workshop recently that focused on communication, especially the assumptions we make that create barriers to effective communication. It’s got me thinking about how many assumptions I make on a daily basis. I assume that my coworkers understand my meaning, especially when I email. I assume I understand them as well.

My new favorite word is ‘explicit’. Am I making my meaning explicit when asking for something, when describing a new process, when giving instructions to a direct report? Or am I assuming they will pick up on my implied message?

This got me thinking about more than just email or even direct conversation. What other barriers to communication do we create? Recently in a Wednesday #nextchat conversation, someone mentioned that they hate being disturbed at work during #nextchat, but they have an open-door policy and don’t want to be seen as unavailable.

I love open doors; I think we all benefit from being available. Our most important work happens when interacting with our employees. But if I’m unwilling to close my door unless I’m in a meeting, what am I communicating? Am I saying, ‘I’m here and you are welcome to come join me’, or might I be communicating ‘What I do is not valuable and you won’t be interrupting anything important’? I’ve noticed that sometimes, people pop in and want to talk when I’m trying to focus on something important and deadline driven. During those conversations, I’m often distracted and have to force myself not to look at my computer screen. I wonder if I’d be better off with a sometimes-open policy that means if my door is open, I’m seriously able to be present for whomever pops by, but if I’m focused on something urgent, it’s ok to close my door for a while.

One strategy I’ve taken to recently is to make sure that my office calendar is always up-to-date, and to invite employees to send me a calendar invite anytime they want to chat. That way, they know I’m free, I can see they are coming, and I can plan to be present for the conversation. This can be about big, heavy, sensitive topics, or it can be about something super light. Someone did this recently just to pop in and tell me they were personally recommending someone for a recent job opening. It was a 5-minute conversation that could have easily happened on the fly, but it worked for her to put in on our calendars about an hour before she came to my office. Because we were both planning for the time, the conversation had time to grow, and we chatted about a number of other issues that might otherwise not have come up.

I’m an extrovert and most of the time I love those spontaneous interruptions. But once in a while, I need the focus of uninterrupted time. I’m realizing that this is ok, and pretending that I’m available when I’m really not does a disservice to my employees and to me. The work I do when my door is closed is in support of those employees, and is valuable and important. It’s ok to occasionally close that open door.



Up, up and away

For most of my HR career, I’ve worked in relatively small organizations as a department of one. This is a perfect fit for me – I enjoy being able to know everyone in my organization, I enjoy the variety of work being a solo practitioner brings, and I absolutely love living at the intersection of strategy and tactics as only a department of one can do. HR is a big, wide world. There are lots of career paths we can take, and I’m thankful for the opportunities and for the self-awareness to know what fits me.

Being in small organizations has its own unique challenges, and one of the big ones is retention and creating a clear career path for employee growth. In a larger company, an employee can move up in their department or try their hand at learning new skills in other areas. There are more chances to move into management roles, the most traditional way of moving up.

In a smaller organization, there are less opportunities. Departments tend to be more specialized, and teams can run lean.  It can be harder to free folks up to learn new things. There are also fewer management positions, and in companies that are deliberately focused on staying small, no new teams or departments are likely to be created. There’s just less room to grow.

While the opportunities may not be there, the desire certainly is. Talented people want to grow, learn new things, and expand their capabilities. This doesn’t always look like promotion, but sometimes it does. Small companies want to retain their talent, but can’t always make room, especially in traditional promotion pathways.

What can a HR in a small organization do?  First, be honest about what is available and what is not. If management openings are few and far between, own it. Make sure, however, that when those openings arise you are giving a real opportunity for current staff to step in. It might mean a commitment to promoting someone who isn’t quite ready to hit the ground running, and a bigger investment in training and coaching. This can be a challenge in a small company where there are limited resources (time, money, competing priorities). However, if you want your staff to trust that you care about their careers, you have to be prepared to make that investment.

The second thing is to be creative about career paths. It is easy to fall back on management being the only path to advancement. What other options can you create? Maybe a staff member is a subject matter expert in an area of your company and can become a trainer. You gain new learning opportunities for staff, and the employee gets to expand his skillset into training and development, honing his presentation skills. Mentoring and managing ad hoc projects are other ways to offer employees a chance to stretch their wings and expand their opportunities, increasing job satisfaction and the likelihood of retention. What are some other innovative career paths you can come up with in your organization?

Finally, know that long-term retention will not be possible for every employee in a small company. The kind of employee you want – talented, motivated, wanting to grow – may eventually grow as far as they can with you. When that happens, help them define and prepare for that next step. If someone really wants to experience management and it’s just not going to happen with you, help her manage some small projects. Maybe let her head up your mentorship program, at least for a season. This benefits your company and gives your employee the skills (and resume) that can help her land her next gig. This will pay off as your now-former employee becomes a brand ambassador.

As HR professionals, of course we want to retain our best and our brightest. In a smaller company this presents unique challenges, but with creativity, transparency, and a true commitment to our employees, we can ensure that everyone has a bright future. What creative ways have you come up with to address retention in your small organization?

HR blind spots

I recently started blogging, and there’s so much pressure! I’m not talking about the pressure to come up with new ideas, or even the pressure to actually write. Like my namesake, Anne of Green Gables, I’ve always got something to say. I’m not even that worried about how people will react, or if they’ll read it. So far, the response has been positive, and I’m enjoying writing for its own sake. If no one else reads, I’m learning more about myself as I blog.

So what’s the pressure? The technology! My poor little blog site (, in case you are interested) looks so barren compared to other sites. Check out for a comparison. The widgets! The gifs! And don’t get me started on folks like with her own name as her url! (Plus, these are excellent blogs to follow.)

I’m technologically challenged. I don’t understand widgets, and while I appreciate others’ use of gifs, I don’t seem to have the knack for finding the right ones. I have a feeling that this lack of tech is going to eventually hurt my ability to build up a serious blog following, and if that becomes important to me I’ll have to enlist some help.

For now, it’s not hurting me professionally to have a relatively blank blog home. Folks will follow for content or they won’t. It’s something I’m doing for myself and for the profession, but it’s not my primary job.

My lack of technology can hurt my primary job, though, and if it does, it’s not me personally that’s hurt. It’s the employees in my organization who rely on my HR expertise when it comes to recruiting, onboarding, benefits, payroll, learning and development, and every other part of their employee experience. I cannot allow my luddite tech skills to interfere with their positive experience.

For example, when it comes to performance management and reviews, I’m much more interested in the content than how employees interact with the HRIS system. I’ll spend hours tweaking a form to get the wording just right, and train employees and managers on how a rating system works. After all that work, I will let them sink or swim when it comes to actually entering information. Because I know this about myself, I have to pay even more attention to the technology that my staff uses for HR related functions, whether it’s how to change their address in the HRIS or how to access virtual learning and development. I love content, but process matters.

What’s your HR blind spot? Maybe you love technology, but you hate checklists and the admin of benefits. Do your employees hesitate to bring you their benefit questions? Maybe you love employee relations, but learning and development isn’t your thing, so you leave it to managers to develop their employees with little or no support from you. We all have the things we love and excel at, and things we have to force ourselves to pay attention to.

I’m thankful for my HR tribe who are a ready resource for me, always ready to share their knowledge. My tribe offers me opportunities to learn and even opportunities to see things in a new light. How are you leaning on your HR tribe to help overcome your HR weaknesses?

Bringing your HR best

My husband bought a Street Sense paper from a sidewalk vendor the other day. For those of you who are not DC locals, Street Sense is a bi-weekly newspaper that focuses on issues of homelessness, and many of the articles are written by people experiencing homelessness. My husband does volunteer work with people experiencing homelessness, so he routinely buys and reads Street Sense.

Street Sense vendors are entrepreneurs working to improve the quality of their lives in the midst of their homelessness. Many people don’t realize this, and walk by the vendors in the same way they walk by anyone panhandling. This observation led us to a conversation about why some people give to panhandlers, some don’t, and some buy Street Sense and some won’t. The issues around homelessness are deep and complex, and this is an HR blog, so I won’t go into those issues here.

But one thing my husband said stayed with me all the way to my HR self. Some people are only willing to give if they are assured of an outcome that they approve of. As an HR professional, I started to wonder – are there people that I don’t invest in because I don’t have confidence in their outcome? Are there some that I just ‘know’ won’t grow in the way that I want, despite my best coaching efforts? Are there managers that I am so convinced don’t have what it takes that I stop training them? Are there ‘bad hires’ that aren’t worth my time and energy?

Our role as HR professionals is not to guarantee a particular outcome. Every person is unique, and brings their own personality, background and even baggage with them. Maybe your ‘bad hire’ is a great employee in the wrong position. You can help him find the right one. It’s entirely possible that the manager you think doesn’t have what it takes really never will be a stellar manager. Maybe you can help her find another opportunity for career growth that doesn’t include management. But maybe you need to redefine what a successful manager looks like, and allow that person to grow in ways that you never expected.

There are articles out there encouraging us to treat our star performers differently than our ‘non-stars’, and I agree. The kind of energy and commitment you give to growing a star looks different than coaching someone developmentally. Sometimes the best opportunity for an employee is outside your organization, and you need to lead them there. But if we want to be HR pros who practice, as Steve Browne says, #HRonPurpose, we must intentionally bring our best selves to every interaction with every employee, no matter what their current level of stardom looks like. That’s the only way to be an HR star yourself.

‘Organic’ Performance Reviews

Anyone who follows me on twitter (@annetomk) knows that I just discovered the existence of organic cigarettes. I am struggling to understand who buys these. If the point of organic is to be healthy and toxin-free, isn’t this a direct contradiction to inhaling poison into your lungs? How is organic nicotine or tobacco better than non-organic?

I can only assume that somehow, the folks buying these cigarettes have jumped on the organic bandwagon and figure that if organic fruit and dairy is better for you, then the same should apply to everything, even cigarettes. (Disclaimer – if you are an organic cigarette smoker, I would love to hear from you and understand your reasoning. Because I just don’t get it.)

Even as I’m judging these smokers (and I’ll admit I’m feeling kind of judge-y about them), don’t we all miss the point of things, figuring if the ‘organic’ label is good, it can be applied everywhere? In HR, it can be easy to jump on to the next big thing without taking the time to understand how, or even if, what’s new and shiny actually fits into our business and our HR strategy.

One new and shiny thing in HR is to do away with annual performance reviews. I know that some HR pros and their organizations are thoughtful when planning this process. But I see a lot of articles about getting rid of the annual performance review and they seem to be replacing annual reviews with more frequent reviews, such as quarterly, but they aren’t changing the content. To me this is like continuing to smoke, but now my cigarettes are organic.

Annual reviews are not problematic only because they happen infrequently. They are problematic because of the kinds of conversations that happen and don’t happen, the kinds of bureaucratic paperwork involved, and because of a lack of managerial training in how to share feedback. Making the reviews quarterly addresses the frequency, but more frequent ineffective conversations with more frequent paperwork requirements are not going to magically solve employee and manager dread of reviews.

Before throwing out the annual review process, HR should be taking a hard look at what the review is intended to do. Even though annual reviews may not be serving their original purpose, that purpose still exists and needs to be filled in some manner. The main problem with reviews is a lack of honest conversation around performance. Those conversations are key, but reviews were also created to document performance and to inform salary increase decisions. Documentation is still a necessary evil, and salary decisions still need to be made. If we choose to get rid of performance reviews, we must be ready to address these issues with something else.

Every employee has a right to know if their work product is successful or not, and if not, how they can improve. Every manager has the responsibility to share that information, and HR has the responsibility to make sure that managers are trained to do so, and are held accountable to share performance feedback. If this can be successfully accomplished within the paradigm of the annual review, then why change the process? If we still want to change the process, let’s start with ensuring that effective performance conversations are happening, hopefully beyond the review cycle and into the day to day life of our organizations.

The dumbing down of SMART goals

I have a goal – I want to be healthier, and maybe lose a few pounds. But that’s not a SMART goal. I need to make it Specific – maybe I’ll start eating more fruits and vegetables. That’ll work. Measurable, hmm… I’ll eat the recommended 5 servings a day. Achievable – make that 4 servings a day. Relevant? Yes, eating more fruits and vegetables is part of a healthier diet and can help with weight loss. Timely. I need to set a deadline. It takes 21 days to make a habit, so I’ll do this for 21 days, and then I’ll be in the habit of eating healthier. But I should reward myself for fulfilling this goal. How about, if I eat my 4 servings of fruits and veggies for 21 days, I’ll treat myself to a well-deserved hot fudge sundae. Perfect.

Days 1 – 3, easy. Lots of salad, peaches are in season, this will be a breeze. By day 5, this salad for lunch is getting pretty boring. But I really want to earn that hot fudge sundae. I’ll add some croutons, and maybe some ranch dressing. I’m still getting all the nutrition from the vegetables, right? Broccoli is getting bland, but a little cheese sauce, maybe some hollandaise, and I’m good to go. Wrap those Brussels sprouts in bacon, and by day 21, I’ve done it! I’ve met my SMART goal and I’ve earned my hot fudge sundae.

Am I really eating healthier? I doubt I’ve lost any weight.

Does this sound like your employees’ annual goals? In our quest take our strategic vision and create SMART goals, many organizations have lost sight of the vision altogether. When we start requiring goals and forget about vision, especially when meeting goals is tied to reviews and merit increases or bonuses, then goal setting becomes all about ensuring we get that hot fudge sundae.

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I saw a meme recently that read: “Without a plan, a goal is just a wish”. I want to turn that idea upside down. The reality is, without a vision, a goal is just a to-do list. Do your employees know why you require goals? Does leadership know? Do you? Or are goals just another box to check in the performance review process?

I happened to tell a friend I was writing on this topic, and she was shocked. She had honestly never heard that her goals should be tied to anything. They are just something she has to do every quarter for a good performance review and a raise.

It’s goal season here in my organization, and we’re doing a lot of work to make our goals more meaningful (a future post will go into more detail). What I really want to see, more than just SMART, are goals that, if achieved, will have a meaningful impact on employees’ careers and the success of our organization. If goals can do that, they really are smart.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

“I’d rather be good than nice.” A friend said that to me years ago, and it’s become something of a mantra for me ever since. Nice is… nice. But without good behind it, nice lacks substance and can even be hurtful.

A colleague told me one time how she was frustrated with herself for letting a client down. The client asked her to jump through lots of unnecessary hoops, and that prevented her from doing her best work. My colleague took total ownership for failing to deliver solid results; it was especially disappointing because, as she told me, the client was so nice!

I would challenge her assessment of the experience. While the client might have been ‘nice’, she wasn’t a ‘good’ client. She expected my colleague to do things that were not only unnecessary, but they actually hampered my colleague from doing her job. Smiling, saying please, and being generally pleasant are positive attributes, but they don’t make your requests reasonable or appropriate. How often do we mistake nice for good and get tripped up?

The dictionary definition of nice is ‘pleasing; agreeable; delightful; amiably pleasant.’ Nice focuses on being liked. I believe that as humans we are wired to want to be liked, and we are also wired to want to take the easy way out. Nice people look good – they always get along with you, they never cause fights. But take a look at the definition of good:  ‘morally excellent; virtuous; righteous’ and ‘satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree; of high quality; excellent.’ Good has character, and good speaks of quality and excellence. Good wants what is best for all involved, not what is easiest for self in the moment.

Many years ago, in pre-HR days, I had a nice boss. Everyone said he was a nice guy, and he was. But he was so busy being nice that he wasn’t good. He couldn’t drive the organization forward because he couldn’t make tough decisions. Over time, business went downhill and he was let go.

Are there hard HR conversations that you are avoiding? It’s hard to tell the company president that his pet policies are hurting retention. It’s tough to call out a manager who wants to make a hiring decision that seems to be based on ‘like me’ bias. If you’ve had a manager come to you with performance concerns about her employee, but she gives that employee a high rating on a performance review, she may think she’s being a nice boss. But that’s not good for her employee, it’s not good business, and as HR it’s our job to challenge that.

As HR professionals, we can’t afford to be nice without being good. Nice wants to be liked, nice runs from confrontation, nice isn’t willing to do the hard work that change requires. We can’t be nice and disrupt HR. We can, however, be good. We can be good at what we do. We can be good people with good character. We can be good enough to address problems, challenge the status quo, and lead change. Wouldn’t you rather be good than nice?