I’M DONE! …Giving Up on an Employee

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Which employee are you most likely to give up on first?


Employee 1: Can’t Do: Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities
You have an employee on your team who has great energy and is very talented; however, she struggles with one part of her job that is a core responsibility. You have explained several times why corners cannot be cut on this particular responsibility. She always says that she understands and will improve, but she continues to make mistakes of the same nature. You’ve even sat with her to walk her through it. You know she can do it, but it seems like she needs a lot of help to do the work correctly. Unfortunately, the nature of the work is such that you cannot assign the duties to someone else, and her work has to be redone when she doesn’t do it properly.


Employee 2: Won’t Do: Demeanor and Attitude
You have an employee on your team who makes comments that lead you to believe that she does not enjoy working at your organization; however, she performs her specific job very well. But working with her is tough. Not only does she frequently make negative and morale-killing comments, her attendance can be spotty at times (she uses all of her vacation, sick, and personal time). What’s more is that she once called out, but several employees reported seeing her drive out of the parking deck (did she really come to work and change her mind?)! Further, no matter what is going on, she always leaves at exactly 5pm. Because of her attitude, your other employees are hesitant to collaborate with her because they think of her as a killjoy who only shoots down ideas. Besides, she can’t be counted on it put in the extra time to finish the project, if necessary. Unfortunately, your organization’s culture is such that the support from HR to discipline is slow-coming and hiring a replacement for her would be even slower. 


Which employee situation would frustrate you most? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most people would give up on employee 2 first because it’s easy to dislike to somebody who you think of as negative, annoying, and a poor team player. Employee 2 is undermining your organization’s values and contributing to culture erosion.However, employee 1 creates as much of a problem as employee 2! Employee 1 isn’t doing her job well, which is creating more work for everybody. Over time, if employee 1’s unacceptable performance is tolerated, it will lead to the same problems that are caused by employee 2. 

Situations like these speak to the specific supervisor’s ability to balance coaching these employees with the need to have consistent expectations around accountability. Employee 1’s accountability challenge is somewhat more straight forward than employee 2’s problem: it’s hard to defend your insistence that 2+2 = 5. On the other hand, employee 2 has to see that she cannot be effective as a lone ranger, which may involve a larger problem: does your organization reward and promote the lone ranger behavior. If your performance management system allows employee 2 to obtain excellent ratings and a raise WITHOUT different behavior, why should she change? If your evaluation process doesn’t encourage employees to behave in a manner aligned with organizational values, your process might allow employee 2 to look like a star employee on paper despite the reality of working with her. Further, is your culture characterized as an environment whereby people would gossip about employee 2, but nobody would dare bring up the issue in a team meeting? Sometimes, silence is tantamount to complicity. 


Here are two additional factors that should be considered. Let’s say employee 2 is younger than 40. Let’s also say that you had a similar problem with an employee who was over 50, but the 50+ employee was teased by colleagues as having retiree syndrome and you turned a blind eye to the teasing because she annoyed you. Now, you potentially have a discrimination issue (hostile work environment). Let’s consider a different factor: what’s wrong with going home on time? If your organization has an expectation that people regularly work late, this is a cultural norm that should be articulated at the time of hire. These are the types of expectations that should constitute culture fit moreso than whether individuals on the hiring committee can see themselves grabbing a beer with the candidate. 


So, if you’re a supervisor, what do you do?

  1. Start with empathy. ALWAYS ask yourself what could explain the employee’s performance or behavior and ask those questions.
  2. Commit to communicating with the employee the impact of their shortcomings on the team for the purpose of creating urgency and awareness of the impact of the issue.
  3. Involve the employee in identifying the solution by asking them what they think they need for improvement. Let the employee know that you are keeping a recording of the efforts to help them fix these critical problems. Likewise, never give the employee the impression that improvement is optional or that discipline is off the table.
  4. When you believe it is time to shift from remediation to discipline, tell them before you start the disciplinary process. Be sure to let them know that the record-keeping you’ve done before this point will be part of the record. Be sure to check in with your HR department to confirm the disciplinary process before initiating this conversation with the employee.
  5. Keep notes on every choice you make and your rationale for making it so that you’ll have a tool just in case you need to explain your actions. Additionally, this information will serve as reference to keep your decision-making consistent for future, unrelated actions.
  6. Never aim to humiliate the employee. Remind them that your real goal is to help them become successful in their role, but to also save them, yourself, and the organization the acrimony and chronic frustration associated with unmet needs.

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