Problem Employees

Phillip Perry Square Headshot

Got a task for Wilma. She has a message for you: "It's not my job."

You probably have an employee just like Wilma: She doesn't outright refuse your orders, but kind of shunts them to the back of her mental shelf and forgets about them. The result, though, is the same — come deadline time she gives you that blank look: "Oh . . . I just didn't have time to get to it."

And how about Fred. Never seems to get his work done either — but it's not his fault. The sales department never sent him the paperwork he needed. Or he had a personal emergency in the morning . . . and a department meeting in the afternoon. And so on and so on.

These problem employees are double trouble: They erode your business profits while adding toxic stress to your day. How can you turn these people around. Here's a game plan from top management experts.


When you have an underperforming employee, don't let things slide. "The longer you let people get by with something, the more they think they can get away with," says Ian Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Consulting Group, Sunnyvale, Calif. "And the more they think they can get away with, the more their performance deteriorates."

Something larger's at stake, too: Unhealthy attitudes spread through the work force as other employees resent pulling the load for slackers. "Most of the time a poorly performing employee is visible to everyone at the work place, not just to that employee's supervisor," says Judith C. Tingley, director of Performance Improvement Pros, Phoenix. "The result is an increase in grumbling and gossip and a decline in morale. Finally, the work force loses its goal orientation."


"Keep a written journal in which you enter every event that reflects the problem," says Tingley. "A written record will be invaluable later when you discuss the issue with the employee. Someone like Fred, for example, will often say things like, 'That is not really what happened,' or 'I don't remember it that way,' or 'That was six months ago and I have improved since then.' To respond adequately you need written reports of what transpired."


Schedule a meeting with the employee to communicate the seriousness of the problem. Your meeting should be private for two reasons. First, you want to find out what is going on. Your concern is for the person and what needs to change. There may be private matters that are affecting Wilma's attitude and performance. These should not be discussed in front of others. "If Wilma's son went into a cancer operation then she has other things on her mind and you need to know about that," says Jacobsen.

Second, people do not want to be humiliated in front of others and may resist accepting blame for their actions in public. "You don't want to embarrass the person," says Jacobsen. "Sometimes people will lose their ass to save their face."

Schedule the meeting, then, away from prying eyes and ears.


In your meetings with Wilma and Fred, set observable and measurable outcomes. Says Tingley: "It's not enough to say 'Fred, you have got to get better.' You need to say something like this: 'In your next four assigned reports, three must be done on time and the fourth no more than one day late.' Or, 'You must return phone calls within two hours of receipt no matter what. Either you return them or you get someone else to return them if you can't.'"


One meeting, of course, may not resolve the issues with chronic underachievers. The next time you assign Wilma a task, you may hear this: "I just don't have time to do that." What then?

Jacobsen suggests responding with something like this: "OK, well what is it that you are working on. Let's see if this task fits into those priorities." Maybe what she is doing is of higher priority. If not, you are in a position to say, "Wilma, I understand your priorities and they are important. But this task is critical and I would appreciate your dropping other things and taking care of this."

At this point specify a date by which the work must be done. Say something like this: "When should I check back with you to get the final work." The two of you can negotiate a time. Let's say Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday morning if Wilma says, "I just didn't get around to it," what next. This is a good time for a follow-up meeting during which you review the details of your first meeting with Wilma. Remind her of the specific performance parameters she was expected to achieve. Jacobsen suggests saying something like this: "If you couldn't do it or weren't going to do it you should have let me know beforehand. Saying you will not do it now is unacceptable and I need to write you up for that."


Maintain your written journal of events concerning problem employees. You will need this material later. "Follow through with another meeting two months down the road," says Tingley. If things have not improved, let the employees know that their jobs could be in jeopardy.


Use these tips to turn around your problem employees. Take action early when individuals do not meet expectations and when you see potential problems escalate. Document performance, set measurable parameters and offer continuing guidance. Then schedule follow-up meetings to discuss improvements in the employee's work.

In the best of all worlds your enlightened guidance will turn your Wilmas and Freds into valued and productive team members. And at your follow-up meetings you will have really good news for them: "Congratulations! Your performance has been excellent. You are meeting all your goals."

Stigma Or Style? How To Tell The Difference

When is a problem employee not a problem employee. When that person's behavior doesn't affect performance. Individuals may engage in conduct that differs markedly from that of coworkers but which may not impact duties.

Consider the case of "Chatterbox Chad." He talks all the time with coworkers. Must be bad, right?

Maybe not. "Some people mistakenly think that the employee who talks all the time doesn't get work done," says Bryan Hale, president of Hale Consulting Services. "But maybe it's the only way Chad can get his work accomplished. Chad may need the social stimulation that comes from conversation. If the work is getting done, then 'Chatterbox Chad' is not a problem."

But wait: What if Chad is forcing his chatter on others. And those people are complaining to you, or maybe you observe by their body language that they don't appreciate all of Chad's chatter. "In this case you need to point out that some other people do not share Chad's style," says Hale. Meet with Chad and present evidence that his activity is affecting the workplace environment and therefore the performance of those around him. Then, says Hale, engage Chad's cooperation with words such as these: "Let's you and I form a plan here. How can we solve the performance problem and not get into your style."

One final possibility, of course, is that Chad is in fact not performing up to standards. In this case you need to communicate your concern over declining performance and note that Chad has been spending a lot of time conversing with others. "We need to talk about your communications with others," you might say. "But first let's talk about your work performance and then see if the conversation with other employees may be part of the cause."

— P.P.

When They Fight

"Can't we all just get along." The answer is "no" for Tom and Otto. Seems like those two are always at each other's throats, figuratively speaking. Now you have assigned them to work on a project and each has come to you wanting out — it will never work!

What to do? "Start by recognizing that employees usually clash for reasons of style rather than substance," says Bryan Hale, president of Hale Consulting Services, Carrollton, Texas. "Employees misunderstand each other when they don't appreciate the differences in each other's working styles." As a manager you can dissipate the problem by identifying the differences in style and communicating them to the employees.

Suppose Tom and Otto have different work-pace styles. Tom is thinking, "Let's get down to business without wasteful chitchat." But Otto is thinking, "Let's be human beings, too." Once on the job the clash continues. Tom says, "Let's get the job done. Let's move now." But Otto says, "It's much more important to take our time and make sure each action we take is right."

Both of these people may work well alone, says Hale, but together their stylistic differences cause them to make moral judgments. Each mislabels the other as a bad person. Tom says, "Otto is a stupid, slow person. What is he doing working here. He wastes time and I simply can't have him on my team." Otto says, "Look at how wasteful Tom is: He does things impulsively without planning. I can't work with him without violating my principles."

As manager, you need to ferret out the stylistic differences by observing and conversing with your employees, then bringing them together and explaining how style differences can be misinterpreted. "Once an individual perceives a style difference, there is very often an 'aha' experience," says Hale. "The individual says, 'I can see now I am dealing with a person who does things differently than I.' That doesn't mean the person is bad, just that there is a difference."

— P.P.

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