Uncomfortable conversations with supervisors (Part 1): A good employee gone bad

HR and supervisors often face uncomfortable situations in the workplace, whether it be giving an employee a negative performance review, dealing with an employee with a hygiene problem, or managing an employee with a negative attitude. In a three-part series of posts beginning today, we’ll look at a variety of scenarios to illustrate how a supervisor can turn difficult situations into desirable outcomes.

Good Employee Gone Bad

For the past five years, Bella was a high performer who the company could count on and was never late. But recently, she has been constantly late to work. Her work performance is suffering as well and she is missing deadlines. Performance reviews are not for another six months. As Bella’s supervisor you could:

• Ignore the issue and hope Bella improves – if not address it at her performance review;
• Fire Bella because you are tired of having to deal with her; or
• Speak with Bella.

While the first two options seem “easy” – Kathy Helms, a labor and employment attorney for the firm Ogletree Deakins, explains – neither one leads to a good result. Helms says if you ignore the problems, Bella will not improve and productivity will suffer. Employee morale will also suffer because Bella’s co-workers are likely sick of picking up her slack.

If you fire Bella you will spend money on recruiting and onboarding, take up HR’s time and the supervisor’s time to interview applicants and you open the employer to legal risk (clearly this should not prevent an employer from firing an employee – but firing – always includes more risk).

Helms suggests the supervisor need not wait for Bella’s performance review to address her performance issues. Hiding criticism only leads to your employees not understanding the extent of their performance issues, and no employee should learn of a problem for the first time in a performance appraisal. Performance appraisals should be a review of what an employee already knows – good or bad.

Instead, Helms recommends holding a meeting with Bella in a private location where her co-workers cannot see or hear. After explaining the issues you are having with her lateness and work performance, offer Bella the opportunity to explain. Keep the conversation positive to avoid defensiveness. Because Bella was once a good performer, there is likely some form of explanation for her behavior. After listening, address Bella’s comments and offer her strategies, advice or tactics to improve. Clearly communicate the employer’s performance standards and expectations and document the conversation.

When the time for her performance evaluation does arrive, Bella’s performance will likely have improved and she will likely be grateful for the fact that her supervisor brought the issues to her attention early enough that she could still correct them and that he or she listened to her and helped her find the resources she needed. If not, the action is documented and further appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including termination, can be taken.

Check back tomorrow for the second post in this three-part series as we examine what to do with the workaholic who makes others on her team miserable.