Dealing with Problem Employees — Counseling Strategies


Most of us, managers included, prefer to avoid conflict and confrontation. We find it uncomfortable. We aren’t sure what to say. We may even have concerns about what we can legally discuss with employees, or how to handle strange or disturbing behaviors.

Start by thinking about the issue as a shared problem. If you have an employee whose performance is slipping, your first reaction may be to blame him entirely. You may be thinking, “John has done it again! I just can’t depend on that guy.” This is a very human response. When there are under-performers in your department, your management abilities may become suspect, so it’s quite natural to react defensively.

But consider the difference in “feel” to this concept of the problem: “John has damaged another batch that will have to be scrapped. He and I need to sit down and figure out what’s going on so that this doesn’t happen again.” Now the incident is the problem, rather than John being the problem. Such a mind-set will help a manager approach the issue in a way that is far more likely to result in a productive outcome. Remember, this approach is for the usually satisfactory employee who seems to be sort of getting off track. If John has done this every week for 3 months, and he still has a job, then the issues may not lie with John.

Let’s consider when performance short-falls may occur. Do you have veteran employees who are being expected to do new things? Or are they perhaps not being challenged at all and are sort of treading water? Are they suddenly failing at work you know they are familiar with? Or do you have an unusual amount of new employees? Your approach may be different depending on what you’re seeing and what population you are dealing with.

If you see performance short-falls in new employees you have two areas to address at once. First, ask two questions: Do they know what the expectations are? Secondly, do they have the skills and abilities to meet those expectations? If they don’t have a clear idea of what’s expected, you can correct that pretty quickly. If they know what’s expected but can’t seem to do it, that’s also relatively easy to train to. But if you have a new employee who knows what to do and how to do it and is still not performing, then you may be looking at a disciplinary issue or perhaps a personal issue.

Talk to the employee about whether things are going well at home. If he is under personal stress, you may need to refer him for counseling or your Employee Assistance Plan or even medical attention. But if none of those conditions exist, it’s time for a very frank discussion about the unsatisfactory performance, to include the impact and even the financial cost of the errors, if any. If you re-establish performance expectations, clarify goals and deadlines and confirm with the new employee his understanding of your expectations, you should consider initiating disciplinary measures if acceptable performance is still not forthcoming.

Veteran Employees

For veteran employees, the manager’s approach may be a little different. If you see performance slipping in a veteran employee in a familiar role, your first step must be a frank conversation with that employee. Start by describing what you are seeing. Depending on the job content itself, you may be able to ask specific questions about quality issues, botched or missed assignments, or even observed behavior. Again, you need to confirm that there are not outside problems contributing to the situation. If you find that the employee is dealing with a divorce or serious illness in the family, make sure he is fully conversant with what resources the work place has to offer. Confirm your commitment to confidentiality regarding these matters. Ask the employee what support he needs from you. He may simply need to work a different shift for 2 weeks; or he may need to schedule some vacation time to sort things out at home or to get some personal business accomplished. Be as supportive as you can of these needs.

If you do have a veteran employee who is not having any personal issues which are contributing to a performance lag, first make sure he completely understands that you see a performance lag, that you know he has done good work in the past, and that you want to discuss what’s going on. Sometimes people are actually not aware that their performance is falling off. This wake-up-call from you may be all the employee needs to get off track. But if there is a genuine decline in performance, and the employee knows there is, the two of you need to work together to figure out what’s going on. This collaborative approach is far more likely to produce a non-defensive and cooperative attitude from your employee, too.

Sometimes veteran employees simply become bored with their jobs and may even become sloppy in how they do their jobs. If you see this pattern, do your best to talk to the employee about the need for their quality contributions. Ask him how he could make the job work out better. Listen to his suggestions. You may be surprised at the good ideas you hear. Implement the ones that make sense, and that you have the power to implement. Explain why you are unable to implement the others. Ask the employee what other tasks he’d like to learn, if you have the ability to make that happen for him. Sometimes the work rut gets sort of numbing, and performance falls off. If you have tried all these tactics and performance is still sub-standard, you must move into a disciplinary mode as distasteful as that may be with an employee you’ve had in your department for a long time.

Your approach needs to be matter-of-fact and factual. Recount your efforts at determining what is causing the lag. Talk about the suggestions you made. Talk about what the employee’s responses were. And come back to the fact that the job still has to be done effectively, and that despite your best efforts, you are still not seeing that it is being done effectively. Follow your company’s progressive discipline process and make it clear to the employee that you are doing so. Again reiterate that you know he is capable of doing the job, that you are there to support him, and that you do expect that his performance will once again get back on track. Be frank about what the next steps will be should he not turn his performance around. You may be surprised at his reaction. He may be sort of shaken out of his lethargy by your insistence that he performs.

Obviously, dealing with different performance shortfalls will not all turn out the same way. In fact, no two such issues will ever be exactly the same either in content or outcome. This would suggest that you, as the manager, need to react individually to each individual situation. That is true to some extent. But it’s also true that your goal in each situation is to work with the employee to solve the performance problem.

Categories Performance Management

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