Coping with an Employee -- Who Hasn't 'Got It'

An unproductive employee isn't likely to tell you the problem. You have to discover it and deal with it. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

Some important do's and don'ts for dealing with a less-than-productive employee.

Sooner or later, it's going to happen. You're going to hire someone who not only falls short of expectations, but seems completely without clue.

Maybe you didn't do as thorough a job as you should have during the interview. Maybe the job for which you were hiring this person didn't demand a high degree of mechanical or technical aptitude. Or maybe the employee himself just turned out to be one of those Jekyll/Hyde types, who makes such a promising first impression, but never seems to produce the results you anticipate.

Analyzing how you found yourself stuck with an employee who just hasn't 'got it' might help you to avoid getting similarly stuck in the future - but that is small comfort if you find yourself already saddled with a less-than-productive worker. Dealing with this type of situation can be costly. And the dumber you are about dealing with it, the higher the cost may be.

Dumb Solution #1: Just fire the employee. Tempting as it may be to fly into the shop and, in a fit of rage, point out all the problems with the project currently on your 'bad apple's' workbench - building to the inevitable crescendo that resounds through the shop with the words, 'YOU'RE FIRED!!' - remember that this will not actually solve the problem. Ten minutes later, when he has packed up his tools and left, you will be (a) getting even less work (i.e. none) out of this position, and (b) likely to see an increase in the company's required contribution to your state's unemployment compensation fund.

Dumb Solution #2: Ignore the problem, hoping it will get better or the employee will just quit. Sticking your head in the sand is fine, if you are an ostrich. However, you have a responsibility to deal with personnel problems before they get totally out of hand. Some signs that this is happening: (1) The employee's already meager production becomes non-existent (he figures, 'jeez, if I can get away with doing this little, let's see if I can just screw around all day!'); (2) Other employees are complaining about the quality of 'the bad seed's' work (or worse, customers are); (3) You are hanging around nights and weekends to repair or redo botched work.

Bad Solution #3: Embarrass the employee, hoping it will shame him into doing better. Few things are as unpredictable as the human ego. When you publicly embarrass an employee, you run the risk of alienating the rest of your workforce, particularly if they don't know the whole story. Is this a chance you're willing to take?

All these solutions may seem reasonable, instinctive reactions when faced with a problem as serious as an employee who just isn't passing muster. But it is the very seriousness of the problem which demands a more thoughtful, measured approach. To do this, you must define the problem, pinpoint the cause of the problem and establish a plan to correct it.

We said at the top that there are some employees who just haven't 'got it.' This, I'll now admit, was a cheap trick to get your attention. Many experienced managers believe there really are people out there who are just incapable of doing good work, who are just somehow 'jinxed.' Not so.

The fact is that there is always a reason, often several, for an employee's poor performance. Tempting as it may be to believe that someone is 'no good,' this should be considered only after you have exhausted all other options aimed at making the association work. If you do, you will often be pleasantly surprised and find that you have groomed an employee who will always be thankful to you for taking him or her under your wing.

Unfortunately, you will also discover from time to time that your useless employee is just that - useless, despite your best efforts. Yes, I said earlier that there is no such thing as a person who is incapable of doing good work. There are, however, plenty of people who are unwilling to work, who are just plain lazy. For these types, the best solution is the first of those we otherwise considered dumb: Just fire the employee! And, I might add, waste no time in doing so.

If you have tried everything to light a fire under this person's tail to no avail, fire him/her. Pay the extra unemployment compensation fund contribution (if they have been there long enough to be eligible, you deserve to pay it, dummy...), and remember next time that the only sure cure for laziness is a burning need for work. The quicker you put the true lollygagger out on the street, it is that much sooner that he or she will become a productive member of society. There are no free rides, so don't offer one to anybody.

Once you have eliminated laziness as the reason for an employee's poor performance, it is time to move forward in defining the problem, pinpointing its cause and putting a plan in place to correct it.

'Define the problem.' You know what's wrong: the guy you thought was the consummate craftsman can't seem to cut it. It sounds simple, doesn't it? But coming up with a clear statement of the problem that the employee will understand is a little tougher. You can't very well just walk up to him and say, 'You're not working out like I thought you would...try harder!' and expect the guy to do a 180-degree turnaround. Say something that vague and I can guarantee one result: an employee who is now even more confused. That's right, more confused.

You see, just about every situation involving poor work performances (except laziness) can be traced to some sort of confusion on the part of the employee, plus a fear of what might happen if he admits to being confused.

Maybe he doesn't understand what is expected of him. Maybe he bit off more than he could chew and doesn't understand the work itself. In the case of an obviously experienced craftsperson, maybe your methods of work are just so different from where he worked for the past 10 years that he is still trying to make the adjustment. Conversely, in the case of a relative neophyte, maybe things are moving just a little too quickly.

Whatever the reason for your employee's confusion, it is not as important as getting him to tell you he is confused. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people in the workforce today who have never admitted to being confused or unsure about what they are doing. And while it may sometimes seem that most of them are managers(!), in fact, the best managers learned long ago the incredible power of admitting how little they know. After all, if you already know everything (or think you do), what's left to learn?

So defining the problem is really not that hard. Even if your employee doesn't admit it, he's confused. (If he does admit it, keep him in mind for the future, when you're looking for someone with management potential.)

Step two - pinpointing the cause of the problem - will definitely require the cooperation of the employee. While you may be able to see, for example, that it is face-frame construction that is intimidating (and therefore confusing) to your worker, getting him or her to overcome that intimidation will first take an admission of the problem by the employee. He or she must be willing to own up to the exact cause(s) of their confusion if they are to move forward.

A big ego here can be a real roadblock, so do all you can to remove it before it has a chance to wreak havoc. Begin by calling the employee into your office or some other private location and let him know what's up.

'We haven't been consistently hitting our production goals as much as I'd like to,' you might say. 'I think I know why, but I'd like to hear your ideas.'

A sign that you are dealing with a big ego is when your employee immediately gets defensive. If this happens, your next step must be to assure him that your goal is to solve the problem, not to embarrass anyone. You might then hint at why you think production is a little off: 'I can't help noticing that some cabinets give you a harder time than others. I'd like to see you get proficient at all the types of work we do.'

In some cases, that will be all it takes. Ego or no, at this point many people, relieved that they are not about to be fired, will admit to their shortcoming(s).

'Yeah,' your employee might say, 'I've always had some kind of mental block about face-frame construction.'

Whether the admission comes this easily or you have to extract it more gradually, it is imperative, once it is on the table, that both of you agree it needs to be addressed. How intensely you address it must be based on two main concerns: the urgency of the problem itself and the stature of the employee in the larger shop universe (is he one of your top people, or still learning the ropes).

If the problem is urgent and your employee is one of your top people, he should be able to agree to a fast-track solution with a definite timetable. For example, if his output hasn't improved within a specified amount of time (four weeks? six weeks?) he agrees that he will take a cut in pay until things improve. Name what that lower number will be, and set a date for a review.

Equally important, however, is letting the employee know that you will be glad to check his progress along the way, that you do not expect him to try to improve in a vacuum, with no feedback one way or the other until his work is re-evaluated. Remember, you want him to get better. That's the whole point! So give him all the support you can; encourage him to succeed.

For a less experienced employee, it is often unfair to make these kinds of demands. Let's face it. Sometimes we all take on what seems a reasonable responsibility, only to find we're knee deep in alligators before we know what hit us. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a younger worker who is clearly in over his head is slow him down, while letting him know that the job with greater responsibilities for which he is not quite ready today will be there in the future - and that if he works for it, he can get there. This not only takes the immediate pressure off, but also keeps a little pressure on - the best kind of pressure, that which we put on ourselves.

Which brings me back, one last time, to the subject of laziness. After you have defined the problem, pinpointed its cause and mapped out a mutually agreeable plan to help your employee succeed, watch carefully. Because it is at this point where laziness, even in those from whom you would expect it least, will sometimes rear its unenthusiastic head.

There is a fine line between the manager who helps his employees succeed and he who is played for a fool. Be sure your plan of corrective action includes an unwavering timetable and requirements which must be met or you will be strung along until it's too late.

Remember, you're trying to build a business, not run a nursery school. Nurture your employees? By all means. But know when it's time to let them sink or swim. A fair manager is tough. And a tough manager is fair.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

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This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.