Top Mistakes SMEs Make When Setting Performance Standards


Don’t hire an elephant and expect it to jump. Elephants don’t jump and will never jump.

 By Perminus Wainaina

In the course of my HR practice I have acted as a consultant for SME’s and large organizations in the areas of recruitment, performance management, organizational review and training.  Over time I have noticed a great difference in the way large organizations are run compared to SME’s (small and medium sized organizations).

In this article, I will address the issue of staff performance and specifically mistakes that SME’s make when it comes to setting expectations. While staff performance is crucial to the existence of any organization, it becomes more critical when it comes to SME’s. Due to resource constraints and the fact that SME’s are operating in a very competitive environment it is important that the issue of staff performance be handled well and from the very beginning.

So what are the key /major issues that SME owners need to address when setting performance standards?

  1. Job Descriptions & KPIS. Do your employees know what is expected of them and is it written? Are job descriptions updated as often as possible? Beyond the job descriptions, have you defined what success looks like through the Key performance indicators? Are your targets realistic?  Most SME owners and managers having done the job themselves assume that it is easy for employees to know the job and to execute well. They assume that what comes natural to them should be the same with everyone.  On the other hand, employees thrive where expectations have been made clear from the word go. If you are running a business that lacks simple HR processes like job descriptions, KPI’s for each role and a communication plan on how to achieve targets then you shouldn’t be surprised when your staff does not deliver.
  1. Hire Right. Are you placing the right people in the right positions? There has been a great debate on whether you should look for skills or for attitude. If you are an SME owner or manager you should hire for skills first followed by a great attitude. It is true you can train and mould an employee with a great attitude. Unfortunately time and resources are not available to many SME’s. In my experience recruiting for SME’s, I have seen many employers fall for the wrong candidate by giving too much importance on things like how well-spoken the candidate is, their background, their salary expectation, their qualifications etc as opposed to what they have done and can do.

If your organization is small or medium sized only hire candidates who have demonstrated experience and track record in whatever you want done. Don’t hire an elephant and expect it to jump. Elephants don’t jump and will never jump. If you are in real estate looking for sales executives, you are more likely to find a higher performer in candidates already acquainted with real estate.

However, you can still hire a candidate without experience if you are willing to train, have the resources to cater for their salary as they learn and the emotional stability to incur a greater risk should things not work.

  1. Offer Support. You’ve come up with job descriptions and well spelt out KPI’s. You’ve hired a skilled employee with the right attitude. Still, the employee who showed so much potential at the beginning is not performing.

 In my experience and especially when it comes to sales staff the question is what kind of support are you offering? I know of cases where a sales executive joins the firm on Monday and by Wednesday is already out in the field and by Friday the manager is demanding results. Have you taken the time to train the staff on your products, client’s expectations, the sales process itself and even challenges they should expect? Proper induction is important.

Are your targets realistic? Are they well communicated? It is not proper to ask an employee to deliver X when the targets have no basis other than the company requires this amount in the bank.

Another common mistake is where a company expects staff to perform without proper tools of trade. Are you facilitating the staff by giving adequate transport? Do the staff have sales material be it brochures, business cards etc.  Simple things make a difference.

You can also offer moral support whereby as a manager or business owner you regularly inquire on the progress made not because you are looking for faults but to develop the individual; and especially when a staff is new as they try to find their footing.  Performance review should therefore be an ongoing process where positive or negative feedback is shared periodically as opposed to waiting for year end.

  1. Remuneration goes hand in hand with performance. In HR we talk of equal pay for equal work. I remember a colleague who once told me that employees do not report to work to make their companies and bosses rich, they do so to meet their daily needs and they are always comparing what they are getting versus their input. If you expect your staff to put in extra hours to meet client expectations it is only fair that you meet their needs too. That is why large organizations have bonuses tied to performance. That is why such companies have medical cover for their staff. That is why they offer non-monetary benefits to their staff. They do this with the sole aim of taking care of employee needs and concerns such that the staff can concentrate on work.  What is the probability of an employee willing to work extra hours when there’s no transport home or where they have to worry about what to eat after leaving work at 7.30pm? What are the chances of a young mother giving her best when she has to worry about her sick child at home? She will be at the office physically but her mind will be somewhere else.


From the above, what SME’s lacks are proper HR systems and follow through.  Proper HR systems include job descriptions, KPIs for each role, Appointment letters, HR policies, performance appraisal system among others. Failure to have them is akin to starting a journey without a map. You might get to your destination but it won’t be a smooth ride.  Send an email if you would like to implement a working HR system.

Another thing to consider is that performance should be looked at in a wholesome perspective. Whenever we task employees to deliver superior results, we should also ensure that we are providing a favourable working environment that aids good performance. From providing tools of trade, constant review and feedback, market rate remuneration and benefits, respecting staff and having open communication. It would be unwise to think that individuals are working because they are desperate. SME’s can make a great change by looking at their staff as partners and only then will staff give their very best.

Perminus Wainaina is the Managing Partner & Head of Recruitment at Corporate Staffing Services Ltd. Email.