Managing the Troubled Employee

By: Jeanie R. Robertson, M.S., LPC, CEAP

Part I: I Think We've Got a Problem

Periodically your role as a supervisor will include handling a situation where a previously valued and productive worker is "falling down on the job." This can be a frustrating, puzzling and time-consuming experience, and when left unresolved, can lead to a profound loss of productivity within the workplace as a whole. If this has happened in your college or department, you know that one person's inability to function at work can result in overwork and resentment by others who are forced to fill the gap.

Everyone has personal problems now and then that may cause some changes in work routines and productivity:

the car is in the shop
the babysitter quit without notice
your four year old has the chickenpox
you broke your ankle
your widowed mother has to have surgery

These problems can present a hardship and take the focus away from the job, but they are usually temporary.
Adjustments made in response to such situations can usually be handled by you or by coworkers until the individual with the problem can resolve it. These problems are a nuisance, but an effective manager recognizes that they are a part of life. Allowing for flexibility enables work life to continue with a minumum of disruption.

There are problems, however, which just don't seem to go away. Some of them even seem to get worse. As a supervisor, you find yourself getting annoyed, worried, or overwhelmed -- or a combination of all three -- as an employee becomes less available to do his or her work. You suspect that the employee is having some personal problem, and you can see clearly that work performance and possibly coworker relationships are deteriorating. Something has to be done...

Part II: Now What Do I Do?

When faced with an employee with problem, supervisors may try all kinds of solutions:

ignoring it
complaining to others
covering up
labeling or accusing
doing the employee's work or reassigning it to someone else
setting it up to fire the employee
suggesting retirement
transferring the employee
becoming the employee's "counselor"
promoting the employee

These solutions fall under two basic categores:
1. Devaluing the employee. You (or someone in the department) hired this employee. The person had some qualities or skills that you determined to be useful in the position. The employee has demonstrated in the past that he or she can do the job. Choosing the handle the employee's recent poor performance in a way that does not recognize those positive aspects is devaluing.

2. Enabling the employee. There are circumstances under which enabling can be positive and helpful -- for example, when a supervisor allows a temporary change in schedule for an employee whose childcare plans have been disrupted. The kind of enabling that is harmful is allowing a problematic behavior to continue to the detriment of the troubled employee and inevitably to other coworkers. Covering for a person who chronically is not meeting job requirements, or ignoring the symptoms of possible addiction or alcoholism, are examples of this type of enabling.

It doesn't take long to realize that these solutions are temporary at best and can backfire on you. You may have the best of intentions, but eventually you come to realize that something needs to be different ...

Part III: May I See You in My Office?

How do you talk with an employee who just isn't meeting job expections? Most of us are tempted to delay this type of confrontation for as long as possible, hoping that the problem will go away. The fact is, there are many problems affecting the workplace, like alcoholism and drug addiction, which get progressively worse when not confronted. Putting off a discussion of this type of problem can be harmful and even fatal.

Now that you've decided that it really is advisable to talk with the employee, there are certain steps that you should take before the meeting:

1. Gather the facts. It is important to have specific information about the problems that you have observed. Document any behaviors associated with the problems (you may wish to use the Reasonable Suspicion Form or the Employee Assistance Program Referral Form).

2. Gather your resources. Discuss your concerns with your supervisor and/or Human Resources. Know the guidelines for disciplinary action and procedures for filing a grievance (see Employee Relations on the website). Call Jeanie Roberston at ext. 3555 for a management consultation if you are unsure how to proceed. If there is the possibility of any legal issue, contact Allison Boucher in the Employee Relations department at ext. 3594.

3. Arrange the meeting time and place. Be sensitive to the employee by insuring that you choose a place that is away from the eyes and ears of coworkers.

4. Focus on performance. Review positive aspects of the employee's past performance, determine areas that need improvement, and develop a suggested action plan.

Careful planning before the meeting will increase the probability of a successful and constructive confrontation...

Part IV: There's something I'd Like to Discuss With you

Confronting an employee about declining work performance can produce anxiety in even the most proficient and experienced manager. As a supervisor, you may fear that the employee will become upset or angry. When done in a positive and constructive manner, however, your discussion can lead to effective solutions and improved work performance.

1. Begin with the positives. Point out the specific ways in which you have valued the employee's work in the past. Focus on performance rather than personality attributes. Be sincere.

2. Express your concern about the observed decline in aspects of the employee's performance. Be specific. Refer to the documentation that you made in preparation for the meeting. If your concern is about the employee's frequent absenteeism, for example, say, "I've noticed that you have called in sick eight times since April 1, and that six of these sick days have occurred on a Friday or Monday."

3. Ask the employee to suggest a plan for resolving the problem. If you are in agreement with the plan, put it in writing. If you do not agree with the plan, or if it against departmental procedures, suggest alternatives or revisions. When you and the employee reach an agreement, write it down.

4. If you cannot reach an agreement about corrective action, or if it seems that the employee may have personal problems that could hinder his/her ability to follow through, recommend the use of the Employee Assistance Program. State clearly that the EAP services are strictly voluntary and confidential, and that no information will be given regarding the sessions. Confirmation of an employee's attendance can only be shared with his or her written permission. You may wish to offer to call the EAP counselor during the meeting, or allow the employee to do so. In either case, you as the supervisor must contact the counselor if you wish to make a formal referral.

5. Avoid trying to solve the employee's problem or giving advice. Remember that, in this situation, you are a supervisor and not a counselor. Show concern and empathy, but then suggest that the employee consult with someone who is professionally trained to help them. Your job is to keep the focus on work performance.

6. Develop a realistic timetable for progress and schedule regular follow-up meetings. Follow Through. Be clear about expectations and consequences. Disciplinary actions should be determined by whether or not the work performance improves and in no way should be affected by whether or not the employee chooses to use EAP services.

Part V: Time to Follow Up

Monitoring the employee's work performance after the referral is essential. So is giving fair and honest feedback. Your time and feedback is an investment in helping the staff or faculty member to get back to acceptable performance levels. Allowing that extra time now can save you time later, when the job is once again getting done.

The use of the Employee Assistance Program is designed to assist a motivated employee to correct work performance problems by addressing underlying issues. It does not prevent the faculty or staff member from being disciplined or terminated, nor is it a management "ax"; it simply gives an employee the opportunity and support to correct the problems which have been preventing adequate job performance.

1. Be realistic. Some performance problems can be corrected almost immediately, while others may require some time. Consult with the EAP counselor if you are having difficulty establishing reasonable timetables.

2. Schedule regular follow-up appointments and keep them. Discuss progress and areas of concern with the employee. Ask him or her for a self-evaluation of progress.

3. Monitor performance. Maintain a regular contact with the EAP counselor, and report improvements or continuing problems.

4. Follow through on whatever consequences you have set with the employee. If he or she resumes an effective level of job performance, give appropriate positive feedback, and limit future follow-up to occasional meetings. If the employee does not reach or cannot maintain an acceptable level of work performance by the deadline which you have established, follow through on the disciplinary actions that you set forth in the initial confrontation.