Leadership

Why a poor performer makes the rest of the team want to cry


I worked with the late Bob Artner (VP of TechRepublic) years ago at another company. We were among six managers who led production teams. Due to company reorgs and personnel issues, this company made staffing changes between teams pretty often. I remember sitting in Bob's office one day when another manager brought in the personnel file of a staffer who was being transferred to this team. She placed the 4-inch-thick folder on his desk and walked away. Bob looked at the folder, looked at me, and asked, "What's wrong with this picture?" Here's what was wrong with the picture: Unless you're the boss's son, have in your possession incriminating photographs of the CEO, are holding in your hand the remote control with which you can detonate a bomb strapped to your torso, you should not have a 4-inch-thick personnel file folder and still be employed with the company.

This particular employee had been passed along through the ranks like the kid who ends up graduating from high school and can't read. There were a couple of things going on. First, she was a minority. Unfortunately, the white surburban management staff was so petrified of making an embarrassing HR move, that they no longer had any common sense when it came to her. (Even though with the size of that personnel file, we could have pinned the Lindbergh kidnapping on her and gotten a conviction.) But that was just the smaller factor.

The biggest factor was that this was a group of managers who would rather have pins stuck under their nails than hurt anyone's feelings. Sounds like a harmless, even nice, quality to have until you consider that criticisms were padded so much that they became meaningless. Every time an adjustment was made to keep the employee from screwing something up further, it was stated as, "We're making this change because we think it will better utilize your **insert verb here** strengths."

So what was the fallout? This woman developed a healthy ego. Because of the mixed messages she was given, she was able to tell herself that her "problem," if any, was that she was somehow above the routine workings of the department. Quality control? Not really on her sacred plane of existence. Accountability? Not so much.

And as for the view from the cubicle? If I'm a co-worker, I'm thinking two things:

  • Short of performing a goat sacrifice in the break room, there's really nothing I can do to get fired.
  • Why am I killing myself adhering to my own personal standards when obviously the bar is so forgiving?

If you're a manager and you're in the position of straightening out an employee's performance, do yourself a favor, do your team a favor, and save any unknowing managers down the road a diet of Rolaids and Pepto-Bismol. Speak the truth. Even if it hurts.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

19 comments
GregTurner
GregTurner

I'm sorry what was it again that qualified you to judge that employee's performance? Had that person ever worked under YOU during their stint at this company where you where only one of six production managers? The fact that you mention this individual was a minority and your observation that "...the white surburban management staff was so petrified of making an embarrassing HR move"...kind of gives me a bit of insight into what could possibly be an issue in and of itself.... Being a woman yourself, I would think you might have actually attempted to take someone like this under your wing and Mentor her. Based on what I can only imagine your Management structure consisted of, I might conclude that 3 inches of that file most likely documented an inability of you and the other Managers to understand diverse cultures. My guess is she was most likely the ONLY minority in the place...

Wet
Wet

I don't buy the belief that a poor performer destroys coworkers morale. I've been in plenty of situations both in public and corporate sectors where I was on a team where I had to deal with poor and good performers. What about taking pride in what you do whether or not it gets noticed? If you are dependent on extrinsic rewards to do your job, then you are in the wrong field. It is nice to be noticed, but I've never counted on it. What I've counted on is giving the company's clients the best service I possibly can, taking on my share of the work, and keeping up productive relationships with all my coworkers (even the ones I don't like). That way I can feel good about myself when I take home the paycheck and that's really what has meaning to me. To tell you the truth, I've never seen that management intercession with a poor performer does much good. Coworkers need to take a hand. I have seen and assisted poor performers to turn around simply by mentoring them and encouraging them.

gsanning
gsanning

There is an important factor that has been missed in this discussion. It is not only the poor performers that need to receive constructive (my definition of this is feedback given for the benefit of the receiver) criticism. For teams to reach their full potential, it is critical that all people are challenged to deal with their own barriers to a more effective team. The question then becomes; how does one create an environment where this exchange of helpful information is accepted. The best way to create a culture of this exchange is for the leaders to demonstrate the willingness to hear and respond to feedback. The added benefit is that it becomes easier and more acceptable to give constructive criticism when this is modeled by the leaders in the organization.

Ozzylogic
Ozzylogic

The manager should have the skills to identify a poor performer and guide accordingly. It doesn't really help when your Manager is a total control freak and refused to acknowledge that you're overloaded with work, and that delegation isn't exactly the right answer.

jk2001
jk2001

The minority woman thing... put a minority woman into management, and you'll be able to get rid of the dead weight. I have been at a couple places where minority women were canned, for good reasons, and quite quickly. No kid gloves. The owners or management were women or women of color. (I've seen the above situation where the white boys are afraid of looking bad, too.)

Prefbid II
Prefbid II

That reminds me of one person for whom I was building a dosier on in order to get rid of him. A VP from another department insisted that the person be transferred to him. I told him and HR they were making a big mistake, but I wasn't going to stand in their way. It took a year, but they finally fired him.

homer4598
homer4598

Sadly, this article describes every U.S. federal and state government agency (and most large companies). It is very frustrating to deal with, both as a coworker and as a manager. How do you stay motivated (or continue to motivate) when this happens so often.

torfeinar
torfeinar

Sadly, Ms. Bowers diatribe is true in many circles. I've worked for various government agencies in different departments and levels as well as commercial, for-profit, businesses and experienced this same attitude toward poor performers. Sometimes, it not because the leadership is too kind but because the decision makers refuse to see the detrimental effect certain members of a team have on the productivity of the operation. Ms. Bowers comments are absolutely true: it's better to be honest and remove the thorn than to suffer with it. It sets a bad example for other team members when one person continually fails to meet the standard and gets away with it. It ruins morale.

toni.bowers_b
toni.bowers_b

As a woman, I am a little chagrined that you would automatically equate a deficiency in a person's performance to their "diversity." Her performance problems wer not a result of her culture. When I mentioned mgmt.'s fear of wrong-stepping HR, I meant that as a criticism of them, not her. They failed her by not being honest. She failed herself by not looking at that personnel file and seeing its meaning. She was not the only minority and she was not the only example of employee coddling. Not by a long shot.

KimEli
KimEli

I absolutely agree with you Wet & Webbed. Being a PM myself, I do have my share of complaints about the poor performers in my organization but I am not going to cry about it. I do however bring it to the attention of his/her manager [protocols require this] but my intention is not to get rid of this person or that. My intention is to help improve our services for the greater good. We all have to work in a team to get things accomplished. No wo/man is an island until him/herself. We all gotta chip in and get the work done right. And if you have a poor performer amongst you, you've got to address it as a team to make it stronger and more effective.

Jamesson
Jamesson

I agree on the intent of your post except for the coworkers responsibilty in dealing with the poor performer. It is the managers responsibility to make sure their team can function the best they can, by guiding them and providing them with any tool necessary to succeed. The manager should have set up a performance improvement plan with this specific employee and not let this task fall into the hands of his/her subordinates. A manager's performance should be judged on how his/her group is producing as a whole and therefore should try anything to improve the situation by either training, mentor, etc. If all else fails they must know when cut loose dead weight. Note: When a professional sports team fails miserably; why is it the coach gets fired? Jim

carynt
carynt

Sadly she hit it right on the target. I'd like to take the minority out of the picture because I don't think that is even the main issue. There is poor performers all over the place. The problem as I see it is management just doesn't make it a priority to really understand what impact each employee has on the team or we accept borderline work because it takes too long to train someone or some other lame excuse. I'd love to hear about motivating the high performers amidst the borderliners.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

We try to get rid of the bad apples as soon as they show signs of low performance. But because of corporate procedures, they usually get a couple chances to get it right before they get the boot. We have a number of dirty jobs that get assigned to the beginners to get them acquainted with all aspects of field work before they get turned loose on the customers. If a non-conformer can't get them right, there are ways to eliminate them. I try to counsel them on three things. Never, ever falsify your time sheet, vehicle mileage or expense sheets. This will get noticed by the corporate people and the word will come down from above and the manager has no choice but to show you the door. These dirty jobs have to be done by someone and a senior guy will be upset royally if he has to do them because there is no one to appoint. This takes him away from his important work that will have to be assigned to someone else. That snowball gets rolling and pretty soon everyone gets upset that they can't do their own work because an underling can't do his job right. This affects the entire work force and before long the whole crew gets upset at one person. This leads to many bad feelings and can also lead to the boss getting upset, which is the last thing you want to do. A good boss is transparent, when all works well and goes according to plan, you don't see or hear them, but just let one bad apple show up and it gets everyone else in a snit fit because assignments get changed and the crew starts to grumble. Toss that apple from the cart and all will return to normal. Sometimes the process takes a while to work things out but it will work itself out. Sometimes guidance is needed and confrontations are sure to happen.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

LITERALLY. I guess that poster just wanted to pick a fight.

homer4598
homer4598

Sometimes I agree, it's just poor management. But much of the time, the manager DOES want to do something about getting rid of the problem, but corporate or government HR policies don't allow them to do so. Or the manager's manager doesn't want to deal with it. I knew a manager in the government who had an employee who felt that pretty much everything given to her was beneath her (she wasn't very high up either). She just refused to do it. Then she started not showing up a day a week without calling. Then it was two. The manager wrote her up, then went to his manager who ultimately said, "Well just ignore it -- it would make me look bad to have a bad employee." Then there are the corporate/government policies that make it impossible to fire anyone. Heck, I've seen people get promoted just so they get out of the organization. And sorry, a self-motivating hard working employee sees that and quickly becomes demotivated. Here they have worked hard, been successful, worked long hours, and they see someone who doesn't do anything get promoted.

Theaxman
Theaxman

I'd also take the minority factor out of it as an issue. I agree that fear of lawsuit may have been an issue. But if it was, then it's probably due to the fact the company didn't feel it could prove it had done enough to improve performance and that's the key. I'll give you an example. At a company I worked for, their customer service reps were rewarding for hanging up on customer and cutting conversations short. Two of their key metrics were calls/shift and call times. So SOME reps would hang up on customers or cut conversations short when they knew their stats were not good. This practice would increase at the end of the month, review cycle or after a rep was counseled. The result was you had reps that would actually get promoted for poor behavior. Here's the kicker. The manager allowed it to happen because it made her numbers look good. Poor performance is poor performance. What the initial post described is a bad system and nobody can beat a bad system. It doesn't surprise me the responses from gov't employees. Because gov't agencies are rife with bad systems. There were two issues with the original post. One was a bad review system and the other was performance analysis.

charlie.lacaze
charlie.lacaze

What if the manager is the poor performer? Time and time again.....

lyn.jacobs
lyn.jacobs

Unfortunately, as an HR Director I agree that often the HR team lets management down. The "fear factor" is often misplaced, and comes from a lack of understanding of the legislation underpinning the policies of a company. Sure, a process is required. Outright Donald Trump-type "You're Fired!" is rarely a good option and can have serious consequences for anyone except the Don. Manager/HR or both should counsel the employee, set in place clear guidelines of what is expected, when it's to be achieved by, how it will be measured and when a review will take place. Ensure the review is undertaken, and have reports from ALL relevant staff (that may include co-workers and even subordinates) prior to the meeting. Document everything. Have witnesses. Sounds convoluted perhaps, but it's what protects everyone if the sh*t hits the fan later. And ultimately, it's the job of those of us in HR to do this, or support you to do it. So if you're a manager, put it back on the HR person. Don't let them let you and your team down. I know we don't always have control of this, but keep trying. And if the HR person refuses outright, and you can't change that, document that too! At least you will cover your own butt for later.

homer4598
homer4598

...THOSE managers have managers. Bottom line is someone is not doing their job to get rid of the lazy people.