Do you have a problem employee that seems to be underperforming in their responsibilities? If one of your team members is not meeting your expectations, this article can help you with practical steps to address the situation. Direct communication is key.
A few years ago I was handed a problem employee as soon as I joined an organization. My boss did not give me much background information on this particular employee, whom we’ll refer to as “Bill” in this article. My boss simply stated that the employee had to have a change in supervisors based on a personality conflict.
As I looked into this employee’s file, three red flags stood out immediately:
- I was Bill’s fifth supervisor over the past two years. This employee did not change positions and held the same job that he had entered the organization with several years before.
- Bill was written up for yelling at his previous supervisor
- There were some time card discrepancies in the past. However, this in itself was not remarkable when combined with other issues that showed a pattern of misconduct.
There were no real consequences in response to these problems. These incidents were documented in memorandums, but no action was taken, which seemed odd. It was clear that my boss wanted Bill to have a fresh start. I also wanted to give every employee a fair chance.
Although I have a military background, I managed more civilian employees than military members at this particular assignment.
Despite these red flags, I wanted to keep an open mind. I did not want to make any premature judgments before I worked with a member of the team that I was now responsible for. Given the revolving door of supervisors, I didn’t rule out that poor management could be part of the problem. While yelling at one’s boss is not a preferred technique, I understood that personality conflicts do arise at times and an argument can break out if tensions are high. Lastly, the time card incident could have been an honest mistake.
It wasn’t long before I witnessed Bill exhibit performance and misconduct issues. Bill wasn’t getting assignments done on time, and sometimes never completed them. Simple tasks were blown off. Excuses were readily made for why things weren’t getting done.
Furthermore, Bill demonstrated poor customer service. His immediate response to any service request was that it couldn’t get done anytime soon, if at all. Bill claimed he was constrained in doing his job properly due to regulations from our parent organization.
I took a systematic approach to providing feedback for both conduct and performance issues. Issues that fall under the Performance category are those that involve the satisfactory performance of one’s job (e.g. failing to meet deadlines). Issues that fall under Misconduct are those that have to do with behavior and conduct at work and are not necessarily related to the quality of performing one’s responsibilities (e.g. falsifying time cards).
Below are steps that can help guide you when dealing with problem employees.
- Making expectations clear
- Documenting issues and providing regular feedback
Ensure expectations are clear
First, I held an initial counseling session with Bill to lay out expectations for performance and behavior.
In order for an employee to meet your expectations, they must be aware of them in the first place. People are not mind-readers, so it is imperative to outline expectations clearly at the outset of an employee assuming a new position. I recommend doing this in writing, even if responsibilities are included in the employee’s contract. Don’t assume that an employee will understand expectations based on responsibilities listed in their contract. The point is to have an intentional conversation with your team member.
Regular Feedback and Documentation
It was clear that Bill needed consistent feedback in the form of counseling sessions, as outlined in a previous article. I provided Bill with immediate written feedback following any misconduct.
Although I typically conduct performance counseling with most employees on a quarterly basis, it was clear that Bill needed feedback more frequently. After my first three months as Bill’s supervisor, we started having monthly performance counseling sessions. These sessions were always face-to-face and also documented in writing. Bill was given a copy of the session summary to follow along during our discussions and to keep for reference.
Our sessions followed a consistent format:
- Outlined how Bill was not meeting the expectations outlined in his initial counseling session.
- Provided Bill with some advice on how to improve his performance.
- Concluded each session with areas that Bill needed to focus on.
Adjust the Plan
It was evident that Bill had problems keeping tabs on multiple tasks or projects simultaneously. He also had problems with prioritizing tasks. I ensured that I was communicating priorities clearly before looking at my employee for fault. I did this both verbally and in his monthly counseling sessions.
In order to help Bill with juggling multiple items, I provided one or two projects to be completed each week over the next month. This method was aimed at helping Bill break tasks down into manageable pieces. While this can be seen as micromanagement, it was an honest attempt to ensure clear communication and help an employee prioritize his work. Once Bill got the hang of prioritizing his work, we would meet less often.
At no point did I ever do Bill’s job for him. This wasn’t really possible due to the technical nature of his position. Nevertheless, if a leader is performing their employee’s job, then the leader is not focusing on doing his/her own job.
Although there was a brief period of improved performance, after six months it was clear that Bill’s performance was not improving over the long-term. This was documented in Bill’s mid-year performance review. This is when Bill was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan. The performance improvement plan was really just a summary of previous counseling sessions. It outlined where Bill wasn’t meeting expectations. It also provided steps to meet expectations and advice on how to excel in the position.
Aside from his poor work performance, Bill’s misconduct issues continued. Bill’s misconduct reflected the red flags identified at the outset of our relationship. These were dealt with immediately and systematically. I took several steps to effectively respond to Bill’s persistent misconduct:
- Written Warning – a first step to identify that misconduct is unacceptable.
- Official Written Reprimand – a next step to show that misconduct has consequences.
- Suspension – if misconduct continues, a temporary suspension of work is required.
- Termination – if an employee shows no sign of adjusting their behavior, termination might be necessary.
As Bill’s misconduct persisted, the level of action was elevated until Bill was eventually terminated.
You will have to check with your Human Resources department and/or lawyers to see if these steps are appropriate for your organization.
As described above, misconduct issues are separate from performance issues. However, many problem employees seem to have issues in both categories. Frankly, it is easier and faster to terminate an employee based on continued misconduct. That’s not to say that we immediately sought to terminate Bill. I personally invested a lot of time in trying to help Bill improve his performance.
Once you establish expectations, it is imperative that you follow through on them. If your employee’s performance is lacking, then setting priorities and deadlines may be appropriate. Deadlines may need to be set on a more frequent basis (e.g. weekly). If your employee misses a deadline, it is important to follow through by recognizing it first, then providing a consequence.
If Bill’s performance improved and he demonstrated an ability to operate within established expectations, we would have held counseling sessions less frequently. Despite Bill’s lack of long-term improvement, this method has garnered positive results with other employees.
Bill’s situation provides a story that allows the article to address the full range of options for both performance and misconduct. It also highlights that employees’ decisions play a large role in the outcome. You gain an employee’s attention when you confront them and make it clear that their performance or conduct is not acceptable. It is then up to an employee to work within expectations, or continue down the wrong road.
Dealing with problem employees can be time-consuming, but is a necessary undertaking for both the employee and the organization. Making expectations clear, providing regular feedback, assessing improvement, and following through are the keys to improving performance. Misconduct issues should be dealt with separately but swiftly, as lack of action equates to tacit acceptance. No one likes to deal with problem employees. The good news is that problem employee can choose to change. It is up to management to make standards and expectations clear and uphold them.
Question: What steps have you found to be effective in dealing with problem employees?
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