Cure poor work habits with feedback

Dear Joan:
I am a manager in a small manufacturing firm. I would like to know your thoughts on how to address under-performing employees that have not been dealt with and have been tolerated for years.

An employee whose poor performance has been tolerated for years is a festering sore in a work group. The infection is likely to spread to the rest of the area. Stopping the spread of the disease means you must treat everyone who shows symptoms the same way. Your challenge is this: If you have allowed the employees' work standards to slip without consequences before, you have lowered the standard of what you will accept. If you attempt to change things, the poor employees will cry, "Foul!" and the good employees will cheer.

This can be a very difficult thing to do and requires a fresh strategy, a strong backbone and a solid plan to get the employee back on track. 

Before you begin, imagine the worst thing that could result from confronting the problem and ask yourself, "Am I willing to go all the way to resolve this problem? Then talk to your boss and Human Resources and ask, "How much support and back-up can I count on from you?" If you don't hear encouraging words, you may want to execute a more conservative strategy. For example, if the person is close to retirement, you will probably have a different plan than if the person had fifteen years to go. 

The biggest problem to overcome is the fact that you are suddenly expecting a performance level you haven't required before. One way to establish a new baseline is to move the employee to new job tasks. I hesitate to suggest this because "passing the turkey" is probably what caused this problem in the first place. It's likely that past managers didn't confront the problem and passed it on to the next manager. So, rather than moving him or her to a new boss (who would surely add your name to his political hit list), reorganize the tasks within your work group or within the individual's job. This will allow you to wipe the slate clean so you can impose a new standard. 

Next, sit the employee down and spell out what the new expectations are, how they will be measured and what the consequences are for poor performance. Once the new baseline is drawn, you must follow up to make sure the standards are being met. A word of warning here: This is not a trap. It is tempting to think, "There! Now I can finally fire this guy if I can catch him messing up!" This isn't fair play and wouldn't help your case if the employee sued. 

Give the employee a reasonable amount of coaching and training and, above all, constant feedback on his or her performance. If he or she is doing well, be quick with a pat on the back. Sometimes poor performers have never felt appreciated and have turned sour because of it. If, however, the employee's old habits and behaviors don't change, start with a verbal admonishment and move to written memos and finally a final written warning of possible termination. 

The most difficult part of disciplining an employee is the pacing. If you are too quick to issue ultimatums and don't give the employee a chance to improve, you will look as if you are trying to set him up to fail. On the other hand, if you don't step in early and monitor the situation through ongoing performance discussions, you will allow your own standards to slip by implied consent. 

If, in the end, the employee is fired, he should be fully aware of why it happened, what he could have done to prevent it (but chose not to do) and how straightforward and supportive you were. In effect, he chose to fire himself. 

If you can't move an employee or change the job tasks, you have a tougher challenge. In this case, analyze the standards you have set for all the other employees in the work group to see how uneven they are. If you are going to clamp down on one, you must hold all the rest to the same expectations. 

Tell all the employees that starting "now" it will be necessary to meet the standard and why. Employees deserve to know why a certain level of performance is required...and that it's not just an arbitrary number chosen at the whim of management. If they are out of touch with their "customers" (internal or external), find a way for them to get direct feedback on how important their "product" is and how it is used. Letting employees find out what the customer requirements are for the work they produce is more powerful than an eloquent lecture from you. If their "customer" is the guy on the next machine, get them together with everyone else who contributes to the final product and discuss how their quality affects everyone else's. 

Confronting a long standing problem is never easy. Managers who do deserve to be rewarded because they help the problem employee get back on track, help the morale of the work group and improve the bottom line. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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