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How to handle a problem employee

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Evan Rodd, PayScale

Most of us have likely felt the effects of a problem employee. We may see the impact from a management position, or feel the impact as a member of a team where someone is not pulling their weight. While these types of occurrences are unfortunate, they do happen. As a leader, you hope to assist employees in development rather than have them drag the rest of your team down. Of course there are steps you can take to handle a problem employee, but sometimes, this process can seem overwhelming.

Problem employees are not only a burden emotionally; they also take a financial toll. Until you start to run the numbers, you may not even be aware of the true costs of said employee, and keeping them around isn’t doing anything for your image as a manager, either.

In a recent article on First Round Review, tech blogger Michael Lopp of Rands in Repose address some tips managers can use to help rectify problems that may arise from an underperforming employee. Lopp says the first step is taking ownership as a leader, and starting to develop a plan for improvement as quickly as possible. This is not only necessary when addressing a current employee issue, but also advisable as protocol for future instances. Lopp advises, “when you’re a manager, no one is going to make the first move for you.”

I highly recommend reviewing Lopp’s article for his take on the matter. Here are some takeaway points to consider:

  1. It’s your fault 
    While members of your team may have expressed concerns regarding a fellow employee’s performance, you are just as much to blame until you take the steps to rectify the situation. As a manager, you shouldn’t simply pass duties onto HR that you are able to handle, especially when it comes to your people. You’ve worked closely with them, and (hopefully) already participated in conversations regarding the behavior in question.

    “Empathy is required for any conversation about performance or layoffs to go well,” Lopp says. “You can’t just ask HR to do it. Especially with engineers, they probably don’t even understand what the person does — and that’s kind of cruel, right? HR gives us the excuse to outsource things we don’t want to do, to avoid the hard conversations.”

  2. Tackle performance head on
    Management needs the tools and support to address issues surrounding employee performance, as well as the support. Some people groan when they think of “Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs)” but they can be a valuable tool, when executed properly. Before a PIP is even put into motion, Lopp recommends some kind of “Pre-PIP” process in which employee repeat back direct feedback to managers. Also, remember to come off as empathetic rather than threatening; your goal is to help employees develop and grow. Practice patience, and remain encouraging while stating direct and measurable goals.

  3. PIP For real
    If initial conversations still don’t work, Loop suggests a 3-step PIP be put into place. Outline a three-month period where you gradually slip from more of a micro-management approach to the hands-off place you were before, providing the employee shows signs of improvement.

    A PIP should also never be a surprise, but rather at the end of a series of direct and specific conversations. “The conversation should never come out of the blue,” Lopp says. “It should always start with, ‘Hey look, we’ve been talking a lot about these things and measuring them, and we haven’t seen a whole lot of progress, so let’s look at our options.’ You can tell them that you’re starting to document things, but it still doesn’t have to be this big threat. You can be gentle about it.”

  4. Have the tough conversation
    Okay, so you’ve had initial conversations, and even implemented a PIP. With luck, this will help rectify the situation, but there’s also a chance the fix will only be temporary. If it becomes clear that your problem employee is going to remain a problem, it might be time to sit them down for a difficult conversation.

    Role-playing the conversation with a trusted coworker can be helpful, but be considerate with the information that is shared. When someone is let go, it can send a team into a rumor frenzy, so make sure to be sensitive while still standing firm behind your decisions. You can assure your team that no other jobs are in jeopardy while still maintaining confidential information. Also, even though it’s tough to fire someone, remember the reasons why you did so in the first place. “It’s natural to be attached to people even if they're horrible,” says Lopp. “You might very well be unable to imagine a world without your Jeff there. But every time I’ve let someone go and it’s been awful, I’m always surprised by who comes into the vacuum left behind. Suddenly there’s David doing a great job at something you didn’t even know he could do.”

Want to learn how to match compensation to perfomance?

Read the PayScale guide: Strengthen the Link Between Pay and Performance.

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