When Enough is Enough

Sometimes you have done your best to hire well, your have coached, your have tried to motivate, you have done the things one should do around retention and still, in spite of it all, your staff person simply does not perform well. It happens to all of us – even the best leaders and managers. What makes this problem a REAL PROBLEM is not dealing with that employee in an efficient and effective way. The best leaders know that even though it can be tough, handling human resource problems sooner rather than later is always best.

THE SIMPLE CASES

When an employee is under performing or problematic in a concrete, easy to identify way, a clear and direct approach is what you must take. For example, if someone is chronically calling in sick but otherwise does a fine job, you must sit down and talk to him/her about how you appreciate their work in many areas but that the absences are a problem for the business.

It is always good to start the conversation from a place of concern – “Are you OK?”, “Is there anything going on that I should know about?”, “We’ve been worried about you.” If the employee has something serious going on, physical or emotional, you will need to ask how you can be supportive, etc. This doesn’t mean that the business can indefinitely tolerate the absences, but as one human being to another, a compassionate response is appropriate. Once your support is offered, you must then move the conversation to the ways in which the frequent absences are negatively impacting the business.

Obviously, if the employee has no significant events or illnesses going on to explain the absences, you move immediately to the negative impact on the business. Your goal is to have a conversation, not simply to lecture. You need to know that your employee is hearing and understanding your view of the problem. If he/she disagrees, that is fine. Keep the dialogue going to try to establish common ground. In the case where a common understanding is not possible, it is your understanding as the owner that trumps all others. If you see the behavior as a problem, it simply is a problem.

The key to a “successful” dialogue is how it ends. You need to state clearly what you need the behavior to be in the future. And you need to get his/her agreement to meet your expectation. For example, “I need you to be here consistently. That means that I would expect you to not call in sick for at least the next 60 days. Do you think you can do that?” If the employee says “No”, then you follow up to find out why. Again, you reiterate the negative impact it has on the business if they do not change the behavior. Many times his/her initial disagreement is not a reason to change your expectations.

You must also make it clear what will happen if your expectations for future behavior are not met. “If you call in again in the next 60 days, I will need to let you go.” Or “If this behavior happens again, I may decide that I need to suspend you for a week.”

In summary, for a clear and obvious performance problem start with concerned inquiry, state

LOOKING FOR PATTERNS

Sometimes you will have an employee who is under performing in only one area. She is chronically late or she is too slow at putting gifts together or she is inaccurate in her bookkeeping. The most problematic employees, however, under perform in a number of areas. No single thing is extremely problematic, but over time you have a general sense that this employee is not really helping your business. The mistake managers and owners make in response to this employee is to tolerate the mediocrity. It is easy to convince yourself that it is not that bad or that it will get better over time. But it rarely does.

These situations are more difficult because the most effective intervention requires that you find a pattern to the behavior rather than treating each behavior as an independent, separate item. Take the example of someone who is calling in sick a couple times each month, is late a couple of times each month, makes errors in filling orders several times a month and sometimes gives you an attitude. Talking to this employee about the lateness with no mention or connection to the other problem behaviors will not be as effective as creating a “name” for the constellation of behaviors you experience. In this example, one could say that the pattern is one of apathy or apparent lack of interest.

The conversation might go like this: “Jane, I am concerned with things I have been noticing lately in your performance. It looks as though you really don’t want to be here. You are missing work, you are late, your not paying close enough attention to the details in orders and sometimes you are angry and terse with me. Tell me what is going on.” You have lumped all of the behaviors under the umbrella of “not really wanting to be here.” Your employee will likely deny that this is the case and that is fine. You keep reiterating that it certainly seems that way to you. And, as in the simpler cases stated earlier, you state the negative impact on the business, your expectations for the future and seek agreement to your future expectations.

In several weeks when this employee is rude to a customer, you call him/her into your office and you begin by hearing their explanation of what occurred with the customer. After listing, however, you will likely go back to where you left off in the last conversation:. “When we talked a couple of weeks ago, I expressed my concern that you seem like you don’t want to be here. You said that wasn’t the case. But how you handled yourself today with that customer is another example in my mind that indicates that you don’t seem to want to be here. You were not patient with our customer today.”

It may take a while to find a pattern or think about what a reasonable “theme” might be to the employee’s behavior. But once you find the theme or pattern, you always use that to “frame” your conversations. “This is another example of …..”

PROGESSIVE DISCIPLINE

Employment law, and generally accepted human resource practices, require that you utilize “progressive discipline” when addressing performance problems. This means that you essentially communicate to the employee in multiple ways and with an escalation of consequences. The progression usually includes most of these steps, although not all are required: coaching conversation, disciplinary conversation, written memo(s), suspension, and termination.

Too many managers make the mistake of not making notes or creating other documentation to track their interventions with problematic employee behavior. Each employee has a personnel file. If you have to speak to an employee about his/her performance, even if it is a “coaching” conversation (that is, you fully expect the behavior to improve after the conversation), you should make a note about it. The employee will never see these notes. They can be brief. They are simply your documentation of your efforts. If things do not work out well with an employee and that person challenges his/her dismissal, your notes will be a huge help to you. You must be able to demonstrate that you made it clear to the employee over several conversations and in several ways that their performance was unacceptable.

Your documentation must always contain seven (7) key elements:

  1. Date of the conversation
  2. Problematic behavior and why it is problematic
  3. Brief summary of what you said
  4. Brief summary of employee response
  5. What your expectations are for future behavior
  6. The employee’s acknowledgement and agreement to this future expectation
  7. Your signature

If the employee’s performance does not improve sufficiently after several conversations, a written memo to that person is necessary. Again, the format suggested above should be used. Most of the time, it is best to have this memo be the summary of a disciplinary conversation. That is, you meet once again with the employee in a disciplinary conversation but this time a memo summarizing that conversation follows. Having the employee sign off on the memo is not necessary. Some managers like to have an employee signature thinking that it might fend off a future argument that “I never saw the memo.”

TERMINATION

If things do not improve with your employee sufficiently, you must let him/her go. The key word here is “sufficiently.” Sometimes an employee will improve a little but not substantially. The manager can feel confused because the employee is better than he/she used to be. However, what is important is not whether they have “tried” or even if they are “better.” The only thing that matters is whether this employee is now a consistently positive contributor to your business success. If not, then you must make take termination action.

It is very difficult to write any simple advice about actually terminating someone. In most cases, how to go about this will depend on the situation. In general, however, you tell the employee that it is not working out and you need for them to leave the company. It is nice to give the person the opportunity to voluntarily resign so that they can more easily find future work. (Having been fired on a previous job will often keep you from getting a new one.) Even if the person resigns, you want their exit from the company to be relatively quick. You have to assess how much potential you think there is for the employee to do damage to your business – to the morale of other employees and to your customer base. If the potential is high, you need to have them leave quickly.

Whether or not the employee can collect unemployment depends on your state employment laws. Once you have had an unemployment claim filed successfully, your unemployment tax may well increase. However, this increase is less costly than keeping a problematic employee in your business.

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