Let's Get You Back on Track

I once had a gentlemen work for me as an intern. Let's call him Mario. Mario was a very diligent worker, took initiative and was eager to learn to new things. From one day to the next it seemed like Mario was distracted, always on his phone, missing deadlines, and the quality of his work suffered greatly. Was I angry? Yes. Did I fire him? No. Why? Because poor performance can often (not always) be curbed, you just need to get to the root of the issue.

Keeping in mind that my employees are not legally obligated to tell me what is going on in their personal lives, I sat down with Mario to have a discussion about the quality of his work. He said he was aware and that he wasn't proud of it either. Then he proceeded to tell me that his dad was in the hospital and they didn't know what was wrong with him. He was struggling to get updates from his family and the hospital was a 3 hour flight from where he was currently living, so I told him to leave and go be with his family. Family is more important than any job you will have and, at the end of the day, we are a work family. I explained that he needed us and we would cover him in his absence but that, when he came back, I expected him to show the same level of dedication that he had done previously. And that was the end of that discussion.

... But it doesn't always end like that. In fact, when you have a lazy employee or one with completely mismatched skillsets, it can sometimes take up 80% of your workday to help get them back on track. I am always a fan of not letting team members slip through the cracks, but rather addressing the issues head on even if it is extremely uncomfortable. Here are some of the steps that I take to manage a difficult employee: 

1. Have a discussion

Not everyone is aware of their shortcomings, especially if requirements were not outlined for them at the beginning of their tenure in your company, or if the handover was half-assed. If you notice that certain aspects of an employee's job are not getting done (or never were), make sure you sit down with them and explain what their job entails. Then I would encourage you to recap the meeting via email so that it is properly documented (and in black and white!).

2. Keep HR in-the-loop

Depending on your company culture, you might want to shoot a quick email to HR to let them know you had a discussion with one of your employees, that you believe you have handled the situation to the best of your ability and you will keep them informed if the situation escalates.

It's better to inform HR too early than too late. They are a resource (it says so in their title ;) ) - make sure you engage them in these types of situations because they are there to help.

3. Clearly document any issues and difficult discussions (PDF IT!)

Someone once told me, "Make sure you document any difficult conversations from your perspective the day they take place. Date the file and save it as a PDF." Why? PDFs cannot be amended and, when brought in front of a court of law, you have a documented copy of the series of events as you saw it on the day they took place (<--key). It is hard to recollect the exact chain of events if you don't have a hard copy and this will allow you to keep your story straight.

4. Be clear in your expectations (and document it).

"The expectation is that you complete XX task every Tuesday by 05:00 p.m." or "The expectation is that you send any client documents to your project lead for review 24 hours before the deadline.". Whatever the expectation is, make sure you verbally state it in a meeting and then follow it up in written form (email). Where necessary, include HR on CC so that they have formal documentation of what is required.

Throughout my career, I have found that when an employee is underperforming it usually has little to do with what is going on at work and more what is going on in their personal life. Most conversations like these are usually one-off and do not require further engagement of HR. Why? People typically don't like to do a bad job. They don't like being told they are underperforming. If they are a keeper, they flip a switch and do what they can to get back on track. 

Sometimes the opposite happens. When you run into a situation where someone is continuously underperforming or just simply lazy, that is when you need to follow steps 2, 3, and 4 on a regular basis. I have had employees who did absolutely nothing all day but stand next to the coffee machine and chat with other colleagues. I have had employees who told me they needed trainings and then complained about the types of trainings that were offered to them (they wanted in-person, not virtual). I have had employees charge outrageous expenses on the company dime. Every single time they tried to turn the issue around on me and make themselves the victim. Please trust me when I say that documenting discussions will cover your and the company's asses. I truly hope it never comes to this for you but, if it does, this will help prepare you for what is potentially to come.

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