Dilemma of the Month: Unrealistic Performance Goals

Is perfection really all that unreasonable of a request?

Back Q&A Aug 26, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas
I was fired for not meeting 100 percent or higher of my performance goals. I feel these goals are unattainable, as it’s impossible to be perfect every month. People are fired if they are at 99 percent, which I think is unreasonable. Is an employer allowed to set those types of goals?

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Of course an employer is allowed to set unreasonable goals. You wouldn’t want to live in a society where Congress dictates what goals a company sets. Talk about a ridiculous overreach of government. So, no, laws don’t prohibit companies from being unrealistic.

The real question is should companies set unrealistic goals? The answer to that is no. But what is an unrealistic goal? No company wants high turnover every month, and I suspect your company is the same, so the question to ask is: Are your company’s goals really unrealistic?

Achieving 100 percent of anything all the time seems impossible to sustain, but it may or may not be, depending on the requirement involved. If you’re the payroll manager, paying 100 percent of the employees every pay period is totally reasonable. If you’re a sales person, getting a sale from 100 percent of the people who walk in the door is unreasonable. The difference is the second one is dependent on other people. You can’t force people to buy furniture, but you can make sure payroll runs on time.

Sometimes goals seem possible but aren’t. For instance, it seems like a cashier should be able to make the correct change every time, but experience tells us that even with the best of cashiers you’ll see a slight error rate. Now, could a company legally say, “If your drawer is off by even one penny, we will fire you?” Sure. Would that be a good idea? No. They wouldn’t be able to hire fast enough to keep their business running.

What you want to do is evaluate if your goal is reasonable and if it’s not, how to approach your management. Ask yourself the following questions:

Is there a reasonable training period? Are people being hired on Monday and thrown to the wolves on Tuesday? Every single job requires a training period and time to get up to speed. The more complicated the job, the longer this training period should be. If your company isn’t giving people the time they need to get up to speed, then it’s not a reasonable goal.

Are most people meeting the goals? If 100 percent or more is required of you, that means your goal isn’t a perfect cash register drawer or every customer buying a new car. It likely means you have some lower number you need to reach and are capable of exceeding from time to time. If most people meet these numbers, then they are reasonable goals.

Another thing to evaluate is whether the goals are the same across the board or differ based on personal accomplishment. The person with 10 years of experience should be challenged more than the person with one year of experience. In theory, the person with more experience is making more money and should be bringing more value to the company. Therefore, they should be hitting higher targets than the new people.

If very few people meet the goals, then the goals are likely too difficult to achieve. But the reality is that if the company fires people for not meeting the goals, they are continually staffed with inexperienced people and are only hurting themselves.

What is the turnover like? Are people being fired right and left for not meeting the goals? Then the goals are unreasonable. Are people quitting right and left because the pressure is too high? Then the goals are unreasonable. Is hiring difficult because word spreads about how awful it is to work there? That also means the goals are unreasonable.

If people aren’t being fired, aren’t quitting and there’s a list of people a mile long who want to work there, the goals are likely reasonable. Looking at a company’s turnover can tell you a lot about how the business operates. Some industries have higher turnover than others, so you don’t want to compare a fast food company with investment bankers, as the turnover will be different. But if you’re comparing one fast food restaurant to another, you should have similar turnover. If one is substantially higher or lower than the other, there’s a problem.

Have you spoken to your boss? If you feel your goals are totally unreasonable, speak to your boss directly and share your concerns. Many bosses will listen if you can make a good case for why your targets are too high. Are there things that you, on the frontlines, know that your boss doesn’t? It’s reasonable to talk with your boss about those things, and you should.

Have a burning HR question? Email it to evilhrlady@comstocksmag.com


Ken (not verified)September 4, 2016 - 5:32pm

Agree with everything you say. One additional thought, some people and industries tend to think of goals as stretch/growth oriented and things to be done 100% or more of the time as duties or minimum requirements. Maybe there is a breakdown in communication in establishing goals.

Regina Samchez (not verified)December 30, 2017 - 8:31pm

I was fired today for making my new gm aware that they were asking me to do 9 plus hours of work in 6 hours according to company's time limitations to perform tasks. I broke it down into math equations. She said If I can't work triple the speed everyone else does I don't meet the needs of the department. what should I do