Handling coworker report of employee performance issue

Dear Joan:

In a recent article about employees running to the boss, are you making a statement about conflict management (i.e. individuals having disputes and disagreements), or performance management (one employee is letting a person’s boss know that the job is not getting done by another person)? Or, are you referring to overall self-management of work teams? We have several different interpretations of the article here at my workplace and we could use your help in clarifying what you meant. 


I’m glad you asked, because there is a big difference between going to the boss with an employee disagreement and going to the boss about a coworker’s performance problem. There is a difference because in the first case, the ownership of the problem is the employees’ and in the second, the only one with authority to resolve it is the manager. 

The article was about employee conflicts (not performance) and how to avoid the Bermuda communication triangle. Triangulation can make a problem worse, when the boss steps between two employees who have a dispute. It escalates the situation because one employee feels the other has “squealed” on the other. I pointed out the steps to help employees resolve their own differences, instead of jumping in and trying to mediate too soon.  

But performance issues are another matter. One employee is not likely to have much success if he or she tries to correct another employee’s attendance, quality or quantity of work. The offending party is likely to say, “Who do you think you are… the boss? You have no authority over me.” 

In this case, the employee has no other alternative than to approach the boss and tell him or her about the problem. 

Here are the steps the manager needs to take: 

§         Probe for the facts.

Don’t take a complaint at face value. If you don’t have enough information, it could create an ugly situation when you confront the employee with the problem.  

Ask the employee who comes to you:

“What exactly is Sue doing that you feel is a problem?”

“Can you give me some examples?”

“How is it affecting her work, the team, the customer?”

“Have you or anyone else said anything to her about this?”

“Do you think she knows this is a problem?” 

§         Try to get some first hand information.

It’s always risky to approach someone about his or her performance, if you don’t see it for yourself. Hearsay can become a “They said you did,” “No, I didn’t,” confrontation. Without first hand information, you are forced to say, “Your coworkers have been complaining…” or “It’s come to my attention….” No one feels good about coworkers complaining to the boss about him or her. 

In spite of your best intentions, the employee will be angry and want to know who has been complaining. Once an employee feels betrayed, he or she becomes hostile and suspicious of the rest of the team. This is hardly the way to encourage teamwork. 

§         Instead, step up your contact with the person with the problem. Get out of your cubicle or office and be around the work area more frequently. Check on the person’s work, show up on different shifts, or take other steps to learn for yourself what is going on.  

If it is impossible to do some first hand observation, you may be forced to approach the person without it. But go easy. You need to hear the other side of the story, before you form an opinion. For example, “A customer complained to me this morning about your treatment of her. I wasn’t there, so I’d like to hear what happened from your perspective. And then let’s figure out what can be done to resolve it.”  

Or, “Sara from accounting, who is on the company-wide task force with you, mentioned that the two action items you’re responsible for are over a month late, which is causing the whole committee to be behind. And, some of the other team members are concerned about other deadlines you’ve missed. I’d like your reaction to this. What’s going on?” 

§         Don’t blame. Help the person take ownership for solving the problem.

Often, the first reaction to negative feedback is defensiveness and denial. Often, that’s a result of surprise and embarrassment. Instead of backing the person into a corner, preserve his or her self-esteem. For example, instead of retorting with, “Don’t deny it. You know you’ve been over a month late. And don’t point fingers at everyone else!” Use a calm tone of voice and stick to the facts and behaviors you have seen and calmly describe them. If they blame others, say, “I’d really like to stick to what you can control. You say they haven’t cooperated with you in the past. What steps did you take to improve the situation?” 

§         If a performance issue is reported to you and you do not see that it is corrected, you’ll lose the trust of your team.  Your best performers will lose motivation and morale will suffer.  Employees who deliver expect managers who deliver.  

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, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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