Adult conversations or better performance management without a compulsory retirement age?

February 2nd, 2012

Is there an issue?

There cannot be many jobs which are as pressurised as managing a Premier league football team, yet Alex Ferguson continues to perform in an extremely high pressured role at the age of 70. His performance does not seem to have diminished over many years and indeed his experience no doubt brings considerable advantages. A good example that performance will not necessarily start to decline once employees reach a certain age; the reality is that some will and some will not, just as performance issues can arise at various stages in an employees working life.

However it does seem likely that the removal of any compulsory retirement age will increase the need to consider performance and role changes with older workers. What is clear is that employers can no longer ignore issues as an employee approaches retirement in the way that some have done so in the past and that this could cause problems if not handled appropriately.

Issues could arise in a number of ways. For example, in some cases performance in a particular role may decline, in others there may be a need for a change of function in order to better utilise skills and experience or manage succession or there might be a request for a change to part-time working. In any of these situations there is a potential for conflict to arise, particularly as the needs or interests of the parties might well differ in these situations. 

As the demographics of the working population change and the decision to retire becomes more and more of an economic one rather than a lifestyle choice. Many workers in the Baby Boomer generation will have the double whammy of financing children through university and caring for older relatives, with all facing the prospect of reducing pension funds. Older workers may well be forced to work longer than they really want to or are capable of for economic reasons, leading to performance and engagement issues and perhaps to frustrations from younger employees who see their promotion or development opportunities being blocked.

In many situations the person who is required to have the discussion with the older worker may be many years his or her junior. The different values and behaviours that the generations tend to have may well impact on the conversation and increase the potential for conflict.

What can employers or managers do to manage these situations sensitively?

  • Treat everyone equally

Firstly, there is some guidance from ACAS in order to avoid claims of age discrimination. In particular, the guidance suggests that employers should have regular conversations with all employees about their career plans. It makes sense to do this at the annual appraisal when the individual and organisational goals can be discussed.

  • Be open and honest

I have heard some employers express concern and doubt that employees would be entirely honest in such discussions particularly in the current climate. I am sure that this is right in some organisational cultures but much will depend on the degree to which employees trust their line manager in particular and their employer generally. Those that have an open culture backed by strong values will reap the benefits of honest and open conversations; benefiting both parties in managing any change and potential conflict.

The government is consulting on the introduction of “protected conversations” in these situations; that is a conversation that cannot be referred to in any subsequent legal claim; what we have always known as “without prejudice” conversations. Quite how this works remains to be seen but I fail to see how this might help. If there is clear evidence that an employee is not coping so well or keeping up with changes for example then these should be openly and honestly discussed and I can see no sensible reason why not to.

  • Have the conversation

Whatever procedures are in place for regular discussions, when a situation arises which requires some discussion, the best advice is to have the “difficult” conversation rather than avoid it. It is perhaps human nature to try to avoid a potential conflict situation; however it will not help and is likely to make matters much worse.

  • Prepare for the conversation

Think about what outcome you want to achieve and the message you want to convey. Try to anticipate what outcome the other person may want and how you will respond.

  • Listen more than you speak and understand the other person’s needs

Listening is a very important skill and one that takes a lot of hard work to achieve effectively. “God gave us two ears and one mouth as listening is twice as hard as speaking.” Listen empathetically and demonstrate your understanding by reflecting and summarising. Listen to the words and the feelings and emotions that are behind the words. By doing so you will begin to understand the other person’s needs and interests and identify any areas where both parties needs can be met.

  •  Take care with language and respond appropriately

Be clear; ask open-ended questions to really understand and explore the issues. Try to avoid justifying your position as this leads to defensive reactions. Better to validate rather than justify. Also adopting particular behaviours will help to manage any conflict situations; generally responding in a passive or aggressive manner for example is unlikely to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

  •  Aim to collaborate

This is the holy grail and will produce a win-win for both parties.  I am sure that in many situations a win-win can be identified if the parties are truly collaborating and being creative in finding a solution that works for both. However, even if this is not possible, if throughout the process each has fully understood the others needs damaging conflict is far more likely to be avoided.

To explore these issues and for further guidance on the skills to manage these situations please contact me ([email protected] or 07808 829545)  for details on my forthcoming seminar,  Skills to Manage Retirement Issues on 8th March 2011 at Cardiff City Stadium

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