Go the extra mile before writing off an employee

A member has just been promoted to director of IS and finds that an employee seems unqualified to work in IS/IT. Find out what steps this member should take in order to give the seemingly unqualified employee a chance for an IS redemption.

A TechRepublic member writes in to ask:
“I've recently become the Director of IS. I have one employee who was hired before I was but does not appear to belong in the field of IS/IT. I don't believe it is a personality problem because quite a few other people also have issues with this person. My question is, are there any sort of guidelines as to how much time, effort, and training you put into an employee before cutting losses and letting the person go?

The short answer is no; there are no formal guidelines on how much time you should put into an employee whose performance is not up to expectations. Your first step in looking for help with a timeline should be your company’s HR department, of course. Some firms require highly structured, formal performance plans, which can go on for months before managers can terminate an employee. Be sure you understand your own company’s standards before you take any action, either formal or informal.

On the informal side, my best advice for you is to put about 20 percent more time into this employee than you initially thought would be justified. Firing someone is sometimes necessary, but it’s never pleasant, and it levies a higher cost on your team than you might think. Even if the employee’s performance is widely considered to be poor, removing that team member is going to disrupt other employees’ schedules and create more work for everybody. And, no matter how justified your actions may be, there will always be some ridiculous rumors of how the terminated employee got screwed. Welcome to the joys of management.

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with your root instinct to not let one problematic employee disrupt the entire team’s transition to your new role as director. It’s just better to err on the side of caution when dealing with people’s livelihoods. If nothing else, it’s good karma.

The key mitigating factor in your situation, it seems from your letter, is that you’ve inherited this problem employee and are unclear about the exact circumstances under which this person joined the team. In all fairness, the employee may be the injured party here. After all, if the previous hiring manager was willing to take on someone who “does not appear to belong in the field of IS/IT,” then there’s also a good chance that same manager gave the employee unclear or erroneous performance expectations.

Since you asked for guidelines, I’ll share with you a nearly immutable law of personnel management:
When an employee isn’t meeting expectations, make sure he or she knows what you expect.

Most workplace meltdowns can be traced directly to a disconnect between team members about what’s actually supposed to be happening. All employees, including your problematic one, deserve a chance to get reconnected and improve their performance.

Here are a few action items I’d consider for dealing with the situation you describe.

1. Refrain from chatting about the situation with other team members. You note in your letter that other team members have issues with this employee’s performance. I have no way of knowing if you were promoted to the directorship from within the peer group, but in any case, immediately make it clear that you’ll address such issues only in the context of a formal complaint. Since you are already considering cutting your losses, I’d assume it’s safe to say that the situation has escalated beyond the point where casual comments from the employee’s peers are going to be of any constructive use.

2. Check the job’s formal requirements. If the employee really is fundamentally unqualified for the job, it may well be reflected in the position’s formal description. If he or she doesn’t know a required language, then you may have cause for an immediate reassignment of duties; after all, you can’t be expected to wait for someone to earn an Oracle certification before he is able to do his job. Of course, loop HR in on the process.

3. Find out why the person was hired in the first place. If possible, contact the hiring manager, or at least someone involved in the process, and find out what perceived strengths prompted the company to hire the employee. Obviously, you can’t be overly confrontational as you go about this discovery; position the conversation as an effort to simply educate yourself, and make it clear that your desire is for the employee to catch up and move forward—because, at this point, that really should be your goal.

4. Set short-term and longer-term goals. After doing your homework, have a meeting with the employee to review the position’s responsibilities and establish areas where you hope to see some improvement. Keep the mood upbeat; first and foremost, you are concerned about clarifying expectations. For rudimentary problems—it doesn’t take long to correct a tardiness problem, for example—I’d set a review date about two weeks out. For more skill-based issues, set a review period of about six weeks. (That’s as close to a formal timeline as I can give you.) Assure the employee that during these periods, you’ll be there to answer questions and provide a reasonable degree of support, but don’t forget to include self-sufficiency as one of your key expectations. If you determine that some type of formal training is an appropriate remediation, be flexible in adjusting your review periods.

If your gut is right, and you do end up needing to move toward termination, at least you’ve laid out a clear course for a formal performance plan for both you and the employee. And you’ll have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you went the extra distance to make things work out.

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Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

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