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Managing Problem Employees: It’s About Action not Rules

Penny, Venetia, Ian and Rosetta at the Simply Communicate workshop on Managing Problem Employees on 9 June 2015

The lively discussion around shared issues was as important as the planned input at the June Simply Communicate workshop on Managing Problem Employees. But perhaps the key learning of the day (although it seems so obvious that it’s hardly fair to call it a learning) is that people management is all about taking action.

We can have the most sophisticated rules and policies in place, but if a manager doesn’t act when an employee goes astray or a rule is breached, there are repercussions throughout the organisation. And numerous participants at my people-management workshops express difficulty with getting managers to take action consistently across the organisation.

We complain about how complex and restrictive labour law is, but we make a noose for our own necks by not taking the simple actions that are allowed and encouraged by legislation. Of course it takes time; of course it is disruptive; of course it is complicated. But so is a glitch in the IT system or a break in the production line. And I have never heard of a manager not fixing the IT system or the production line just because it is difficult or takes too long or because he’s too busy.

Ensuring employees are engaged and committed, that they are working effectively and efficiently, has to be one of the top priorities of a manager. Managing people is not an interruption to a manager’s routine; it is just as important as optimising the production line or fixing IT and financial systems.

Managing people is not about you versus Labour Law or you versus the unions. It is all about getting the job done – ensuring your business is productive and meets its objectives. Company disciplinary codes, policies, procedures and standards are simply rules introduced to help achieve the objectives of the organisation. They provide guidance to the parties and ensure consistency in application. And they allow the organisation to correct behaviour and performance in a just and equitable manner.

BUT it is all about taking action. Failure to act when standards of behaviour or performance are not met creates dissatisfaction and uncertainty among the rest of the workforce. Employees feel let down when people and issues are not managed effectively. And the rules become empty, meaningless words; in fact, our failure to act becomes the new rule.

Indiscipline wastes time and reduces productivity. It takes everyone’s focus away from the job and onto the misconduct and the disciplinary process. Dealing with it quickly and effectively allows everyone to get back to work.

When employees return from sick leave, for example, make it a standard practice to discuss it with them. Check their sick leave record and discuss any anomalies. Check all medical certificates and ensure they are valid. Ask if there is anything the company can help them with, any issues you should know about. The fact that you take an interest is important, but it also sends a message that you take sick leave seriously and that you expect employees to do the same.

We know that we cannot lump different types of misconduct together. Three instances of poor timekeeping might end in dismissal, but separate issues of poor timekeeping, a minor failure to follow instructions and limited damage to company property might only result in three separate written warnings.

With poor performance, however, it is all one thing – incapacity or inability to do the job. It might be a poorly completed document today, a failure to respond to a client tomorrow and late submission of a report the next, but (assuming that we are dealing with poor performance and not negligence) these are not separate issues but all evidence of an inability to do the job. And a discussion about the employee’s capacity must be held. Get to the bottom of why the employee is struggling, what (if anything) the company can do to assist and what the employee is going to do by when. Set the targets and the deadlines and arrange a follow up meeting.  These are serious matters; they could end in dismissal. But, equally, they could result in a focused, motivated and much more competent employee. A win for everyone.

It all starts with a determination to take action whenever required, to ensure that all employees are focused and engaged, determined to make this organisation fly. Isn’t that important to you?

Share your stories of action and inaction below.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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