Problem employees: finding the real problem

Watch_PointAt a recent workshop the issue of poor timekeeping was raised. To be more accurate, given the almost universal agreement, it fairly shouted for attention.

Of course everyone wants the poor timekeeping, the absenteeism, the poor performance, the bad behaviour to stop. No question there. But the real question is whether we are willing and determined to do something about it. And do we have the support of other managers, or will our efforts be ridiculed or even actively sabotaged. As someone said, how do you deal with a problem employee when that employee is a pet of the owner or CEO?

If there is reluctance in the organisation to deal with poor performance or misconduct, start by discussing with your colleagues the cost and risks associated with inaction. Acting without support will undermine your best efforts and be counterproductive.

When you are ready to proceed, prepare carefully and raise the matter with the employee concerned, detailing all relevant dates and times. There will be excuses and perhaps tears or anger. One employee who kept arriving late spoke of a stomach problem that occurred every morning. Another, for whom Monday appears to have become a no-work day, has presented a variety of excuses for not arriving after the weekend, from the illness of a child to deaths in the family.

The temptation in these matters is to focus on the excuse given and try to determine whether it could possibly be true. And, if it is, what are we are we supposed to do about it?

But the excuse is not the organisation’s problem and it is not your problem as a manager. Focus on your problem. Your problem is that the employee is not at work at the required time or on the required day. And your question to the employee, whether they are merely malingering or they have a genuine problem, is the same: what is the employee going to do about it?

For an ‘inconveniently’ recurring illness, you may have to consider trying to accommodate the employee, but accommodation is not all one way. For you to accommodate the employee’s needs, you need cooperation in the form of a report from a doctor and an assessment of what accommodation may be required and for how long. Further reports may be required if there is little or no progress. Ultimately, you may need to hold a formal discussion with the employee to assess their suitability for employment, given the persistent inability to meet the requirements of the job.

The same procedure applies to family and other issues that keep an employee away from work. Whatever the reason (or excuse) given, the problem is nonattendance. The employee is not fulfilling their contract, and the question is what are they going to do about it? Once again, your sympathy may lead you to give reasonable accommodation to someone experiencing a death in the family or struggling with an ill child, but here, too, suitability for employment has to be assessed if an employee’s home arrangements or family responsibilities demand regular absence. Apart from their not being at work, there is the inconvenience of having to find a replacement, adjust shifts or overload everyone else in the department.

Don’t let the employee’s problems keep you from focussing on the problem you have – their absence, misconduct or poor performance. The reasons they give or the excuses they offer may lead you to special accommodation, but not without something in return. You are entitled to expect every employee to present themselves at work and to offer their full attention to the job at hand for the full hours of employment.

Do you have a particular problem, contact Simply Communicate, or leave a comment 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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