Vote of Confidence: OK for Sports, Not for Business

We often read that the coach of a losing team gets a public “vote of confidence” from team management, only to be fired a week or two later after the team drops a few more games.  This may be an acceptable game plan in the sports world but for most other employers, it can get you whistled for a big and expensive penalty.

The vote of confidence in sports is one of those statements often understood to mean exactly the opposite, just like “the check is in the mail” and “I already finished my homework.”  When the declaration is issued, there is a good chance the coach knows that it is time to start packing.  Former Minnesota Wild hockey coach Mike Yeo recently found this out when the team fired him after issuing their kiss of death, – oops, vote of confidence – just eight days earlier.

Lessons for the Non-Sporting World

Perhaps the vote of confidence is intended as reassurance to the coach, a message to the players about their performance or simply a strategy to avoid paying out the remainder of a departed coach’s contract.  As the team keeps losing, however, and the fans and media start getting angry,  the analytics become pretty simple.  They can’t fire an entire team of professional athletes under contract so they fire the coach in the hope that this might shake things up.  If it work, great; if not, there’s always next year.

In the non-sporting arena, this approach is usually the wrong call.  The business version of a vote of confidence, such as a positive performance evaluation, a letter of commendation or a significant pay increase, is typically understood to reflect management’s satisfaction with the employee’s body of work for the period that the evaluation or increase covers.  The employee therefore has reason not to be concerned about imminent termination unless, of course, there has been a very critical lapse in performance or behavior since then, such as the loss of a major customer, a serious policy infraction or some other equally significant occurrence.

A Pat on the Back Shouldn’t Hurt

In the absence of such a critical failure, an employee who is terminated or suffers some other adverse action shortly after getting a “vote of confidence” has good cause to believe that there must be a reason other than job performance for the sudden shift in management’s demeanor.  This is when that employee begins to wonder whether there might actually be an illegal motivation for all of this, such as race, gender, or some other protected classification.  After all, how could the termination be work-related if the employee just got a strong pat on the back a short time ago?

This concern increases if the employee has engaged in some sort of protected activity between the time they received their vote of confidence and the adverse employment action.  An employee who is praised for their job performance and then receives a demotion or disciplinary action has good cause to be suspicious if that action follows quickly after, for example, an OSHA report, an illegal harassment claim or a FMLA request.

In fact, as we reported recently in “EEOC’s New Retaliation Guide is Threat to Employers,” an impending relaxation of the standard for proving retaliation cases makes it even more worrisome for employers to take adverse action against an employee who has engaged in protected activity.  The fact that an employee received some sort of vote of confidence will be a significant part of the “convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence” (the EEOC’s proposed standard of proof) needed to persuade an enforcement agency, a judge or jury that the adverse employment action is retaliatory.

Certainly there may be times when the employer intends to use a commendation or a raise as an incentive to a weak performer or as an expression of confidence that the employee is still valued despite recent setbacks.  In such cases, however, that intent should be expressed clearly and documented effectively to insure that there are no misunderstandings. Otherwise, it is best to find a more effective and less dangerous form of motivation.

Bottom Line

In the sports world, it’s all about the wins and losses.  If the team continues to lose, everybody understands that the coach may get fired regardless of what team officials might have said previously.

It is different for the rest of us.  If you seek to motivate your employees through troubled times or disappointing performance, do so in a way that makes it clear that you believe that improvement is needed.  A steady course of timely discussion and thorough documentation works well for this.  On the other hand, giving an employee a strong vote of confidence and then kicking that person off the team a short time later may put you in the human resources version of the penalty box.