Managing a Struggling Employee

©2003 Esther Derby,

Sooner or later every manager faces the same dilemma: What do I do when I inherit or hire an employee who turns out to be a poor fit for the job?

Tom was the development manager for a supply chain product. He had an important project to deliver and was staffing up to meet the workload. The company had recently discontinued another product, InventoryPro, and HR was trying to find jobs for all the people who had been displaced within the company. When it was time to recruit candidates, Tom looked internally first .

Sara, one of the InventoryPro team, had the qualifications, at least on paper. But Sara also had a reputation for having bounced around the company for more than a decade. Shed been on get well plans and on the edge of being fired three times, but had always pulled it together long enough to climb out of probationary status.

Tom rationalized an explanation in his mind:

She just needs a fresh start. Shes bright and shes got 12 years of experience. With the InventoryPro situation, Id have to go through all sorts of hassle for an external hire when theres someone from the InventoryPro team who could do the job.

So Sara started on the project. Tomand the rest of the teamsoon experienced first hand the behaviors that had landed Sara on employment probation three times.

Within three weeks, Jessica, the team lead, was in Toms office. Tom, Im worried about Saras impact on the project. Every meeting turns into a debate. Its starting to wear on me and the team. Plus the work she does isntwell, it isnt very good. Ive had to ask her to redo 3 out of 5 deliverables so far. Im worried that with Saras rework, were falling behind schedule.

Youve got to give her a chance, Jessica, Tom said. Maybe she didnt understand what she was supposed to do. Shes new to the team, after all.

I dont know, Tom, Jessica said. I reviewed the completion criteria for each deliverable with her, and gave her examples from the last project. I wouldnt expect to coach even a junior employee this much.

Ill have a talk with her and sign her up for a communications skills class. Tom said. And Ill talk to her about the quality of her work. But you need to cut her some slack and give her some time to fit in with the team.

The next week, Jessica was back in Toms office. It just isnt working out with Sara, Jessica said. She sits through our work sessions glaring, and after the meeting tells the other team members how stupid my approach is. Its really taking a toll on the teamtheyre wasting energy bitching about Sara instead of working on the software! Were definitely falling behind schedule!

Ill bring Sara up to acceptable performance. Ive never fired anyone, Tom protested. Ill turn her around: Ill meet with her every day to coach her. Its going to take time, Jessica. You need to be patient.

How much time? How long before Tom decides hes done enough to try to help Sara? Jessica wondered.

Where to Begin

Tom made a poor tradeoff when he decided to avoid a hassle with HR and hire a person with a history of poor job performance. While Toms situation is extreme, sooner or later every manager is faced with a decision about how long to coach an employee who is struggling.

When you are faced with an employee who isnt working out, ask yourself these questions:

  • How much rework am I willing to accept?
  • How much time am I willing to add to the schedule to accommodate poor-quality work?
  • What effect is this person having on the rest of the team? Am I willing to accept that effect?
  • What sort of message do I want to send to the rest of the team?
  • How much time am I personally willing and able to invest in coaching this employee?
  • Am I investing my coaching time where it will best serve the individual, the team, and the company?

If youve decided to coach an employee who is struggling, make a plan with a time limit.

Have a frank conversation about the gaps you see between the results you want and the results hes achieving.

If you are both willing to work to close the gaps, develop a training and skills-building plan and agree when and how youll reassess progress.

If you dont have other appropriate work and cant accommodate the time investment to build skills, coach the employee out of your group. Your HR department may offer support to help him find another job internally or externally. Although it may be tempting to help the person yourself, dont do it! You are not a job placement service, and getting involved in the job search will make it harder for you to fire the person if he doesnt find other work outside your group in a reasonable amount of time.

When the employee doesnt recognize the skills gap or there are behavioral problems, establish a get well plan. Determine the changes and actions that youll need to see and set a time frame. My preference is 30 60 days, with weekly checkpoints along the way. Your company may have specific guidelines, so check with your HR person or the company lawyer. Be ready to terminate employment if the employee isnt willing or able to meet the goals of the plan.

What happened with Sara? Three months later, Jessica had moved Sara off the supply chain project. The team couldnt recover the time and productivity theyd lost while Sara was on the team, but they were starting to settle in and re-gel.

Tom devised a one-person project for Sara to work on. It wasnt really important work, but it kept Sara busy while Tom continued to follow up on her work and coach her twice a week. I doubt Tom will ever fire Sara, since doing so would admit hed failed to bring her performance up to a suitable level.

Many managers, like Tom, have a hard time making the decision to stop coaching and move an employee on to another job inside or outside of the company. Some will spend months or even years accepting marginal performance and lowered productivity for the entire team rather than make a difficult decision.

Take a look at the bigger picture of the work to be done, the productivity and the morale of the team. Then ask yourself: Where should I invest my time?

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