Putting out Fires: How to Confront the Unproductive Employee
Managers may not think of themselves as firemen, responding to crises with disciplined and well-considered action in an effort to contain potentially volatile firestorms. But this is often the case, especially when an employee’s production dips far below the line of acceptability.
- Make sure the changes are behavior-related, not targeted toward attitude. Behavior is the only real change that can be measured. Improved behavior will inevitably alter attitude.
- Determine/define a minimum standard of job performance. The colleague can help map out the steps needed to meet the formalized standard, but the manager must define the goal. Follow-up sessions to assess progress, encouragement, and, if the problem persists, disciplinary action may all be required.
- Maintain privacy during the meeting. According to Gilliam, privacy guarantees confidentiality and, crucially, ensures trust. Meetings should be held in a location where doors can be closed, possibly at a site separate from the office. He furthermore emphasizes that the manager should guarantee that the conversation is being conducted in strict confidence, and recommends asking the colleague for a similar commitment.
- Avoid references to third-parties. Don’t say something like, “You know, Suzanne said this, so I thought it was time we talked.” This sort of statement gives credence to hearsay before consulting its subject.
- Establish facts with clearly stated details, adhering to a three- or five-point description of those facts before the session. Also avoid broad or general words and phrases, such as “always,” “never,” “all the time,” and “everybody.” Words like these only serve to antagonize and discourage the listener.
- Assess the probable impact on the team member, considering the potential reactions. “Anticipating the team member’s reaction will be valuable preparation for your session,” writes Gilliam. He recommends pre-assessing how the colleague has reacted to similar exchanges in the past to head-off any potential drama.
More optimistically, when swiftly and effectively addressed, the smoldering situation can be readily extinguished. Like firemen, a manager must dutifully and efficiently answer the bell. Ignored or improperly handled, smoke from a distant fire can lead to a potential blaze. And that is a “no smoking” rule worth enforcing.