The friendly co-pilot: Handling the problem employee

“Why can’t all my employees be superstars,” asks a frustrated CIO, Rick, from a mid- sized manufacturing company in Toronto. “We have a few here who just aren’t performing; or perhaps they aren’t up to the job- what do we do?”

Well, Rick, if it’s any comfort to you, you are not alone. Every shop I’ve seen more or less follows some form of bell shaped distribution- on the left a handful of “walk on water” types; in the middle the majority “rank and file” satisfactory performers; and on the right the problem employees.

When I was a manager, I found it difficult to deal with the latter; and I had them all- the alcoholic, the one older than I who seemed to be running out of steam, and the ones who thought that the company owed them a living- I found that sense of entitlement really annoying!

Without a doubt it was great dealing with the superstars — on the same wavelength, knew exactly what was required, and delivered quality results on time. It was OK dealing with the rank and file, even though they usually required more guidance. However, what a “drag” dealing with the lower end- seldom understanding the requirements, continually encountering problems and asking what to do, and continually complaining about everything and everybody.

Like many companies, during my management days, we had a ranking system for performance that went something like this:

–Meets Requirements- “Boss we have a problem, what do I do?”

–Exceeds from time to time- “Boss we have a problem, here are some alternative solutions, what should I do?”

–Frequently exceeds- “Boss we have a problem, here are the alternatives and here is my recommendation; may I proceed?”

–Unsatisfactory- “Problem? What problem?”

And finally, with the top performers I didn’t hear about problems- they were anticipated in the professional’s work plans and “headed off at the pass”. As a management consultant I have seen a few generations of IT professionals and have listened to the Human Resource folks discuss Gen X, Gen Y (and Gen whatever) behaviours and needs; but in my opinion the real professionals, the “A performers”, haven’t changed- they are smart, organized, focussed and committed. <?P>

The only problem I found with evaluation systems was that many managers (me included) tended to over inflate a problem employee’s rating. Why? Perhaps we didn’t feel comfortable delivering bad news; or perhaps we wanted to avoid what we knew would become a confrontational session.

So the first point to make in addressing a problem situation is to be completely honest with the employee- he/she needs to “know the score” and how management views the individual’s performance.

Next, it’s probably mandatory to engage Human Resources. No doubt, these professionals will prescribe some form of performance improvement program- with frequent checkpoints based on short term assignments and measurable targets. Also HR will need to be assured that the employee has received the appropriate training to fulfill the anticipated outcomes.

If the employee fails to perform to the prescribed program and targets within an established period of time (eg six months), then there is reason to “terminate with cause”- although a package may be offered. All this takes time and managerial effort.

Then there are those managers who will make the decision that the employee in question just isn’t going to “make it” regardless of how much training is sustained and how many performance improvement programs are undertaken. Usually this is based on a realization, either conscious or unconscious, that there is a difference between “talent” and “skill”.

Talent is what you were born with- the “hand you were dealt”- comprised of native intelligence, creativity and several other aspects impacting performance potential. Skill, on the other hand, is how this talent is developed and put to use, and involves education/training, experience and observation.

In the cases where the unsatisfactory assessment is based on the boss’s perceived absence of talent or desire, I have seen managers undertake a “heart to heart” conversation with the employee outlining the assessment and conclusion, and offering a generous package to resign (or, perhaps as an option, a reassignment to a job that the employee can likely handle). Depending on the organization, some creative accounting may be required using this technique. However, in the long run, this could be more cost effective from an organizational perspective and less draining on the managers directly involved. To put it another way, managers are paid big bucks partly based on their ability to make decisions based on gut intuition and to be right most of the time.

Not to be overlooked is the impact on the rest of the shop if a performance problem is not addressed. Professionals are continually assessing each other’s talents, skills and work ethic. If someone is not “pulling his weight”, morale starts to decline among the co workers; and if the performance issues are not addressed, then the water cooler discussions shift from the problem employee to management’s inability (and lack of guts) to take the obvious actions.

So, in conclusion, Rick, the impact of problem employees can be severe throughout a work unit. Regardless of the formal or informal techniques used, these issues must be “nipped in the bud” quickly. Procrastination is not an option- no one benefits: the problem employee, the fellow professionals and your career prospects as a manager.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

IT World Canada in your inbox

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Latest Blogs

Senior Contributor Spotlight