Dealing with the problem employee in government IT: Be fair and methodical

Managing a "problem" employee is never easy, but in government jobs, the added bureaucracy makes it even more complicated. Be fair, have a plan, and prepare to deal equally with employee success or failure. This article tells you how.

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I recently read an advice column in which a manager who was saddled with not having enough staff for an upcoming project was given the choice of taking on the project with his current numbers, or having his staff augmented with a known "problem" employee. Not knowing what to do, he asked the columnist for his advice.

Perhaps you have had a similar situation. Maybe you have been complaining that you are understaffed and the option was given to you that you could have another budget slot, but you also have to take the person that was already occupying the position. Or perhaps you have not mentioned anything about needing staff augmentation, but out of the blue, you have been "given" a new slot and a new person to go with it. Surprise! Enjoy your new "gift".

My guess is that you probably have had both, if not just one, of the above situations, and if not, you will at some point in your government IT career. Like the reader asked above, what do you do when presented with the situation?

The advice columnist geared his answer strictly to the private sector when he said, and I paraphrase, "Yes, take the employee with caveats". This answer, while workable in the private sector, should send off alarm bells to someone in the government sector. When it comes to personnel issues in government jobs, dealing with a problem employee is never a speedy process. So the short answer to both of the above situations is to "just say no!"

Why do I say this when I know how hard budget slots can be to come by? Because my own personal experience, as well as that of my colleagues over the years, has taught me that while it is nice to be a team player and an accommodating manager, taking on someone else's problem employee is usually far more trouble than it is worth.

Once that employee becomes "yours" it rarely matters how they performed in the past. Most of the employee's problems were more than likely not documented, and if you find that even after giving him or her a fresh start the problems persists, you will be saddled with the whole remediation/step-discipline progression—which by its nature, is not a speedy process. Additionally, you will be the bad guy/gal for doing what the employee's previous supervisors should have done long ago.

So now that we know that taking the employee on is a poor choice, what do we do if we are given no choice in the matter? First, talk to your management, thank them for thinking highly enough of your management skills to give you this challenge and then respectfully decline. Explain that although it would be a worthy effort, given your schedule and workload, you could not possibly give the person the attention he/she deserves.

If that is a nonstarter for you, then it might be time to do some research. If the employee is coming with a position that will need to be re-classified with them in it to fit into your unit, you may have an opportunity to make the case that his or her skills do not meet the minimum requirements of the new job. If the employee is making a lateral move, and no reclassification is necessary, this might not work.

If all of the above fails and you are forced to take this person on, then you should do the following:

  • Try to keep an open mind. Unless you have a stack of negative performance appraisals in front of you, keep in mind that much of what you "know" about this person is word of mouth. And even if you do have that stack of appraisals, people can change.
  • Set clear expectations from the get-go. Taking on a problem employee is not the time for ambiguity. Make sure you discuss with the new employee your expectations regarding performance and how evaluations are to be determined; make sure you give clear and understandable directions.
  • Document. If you aren't already, make sure you document successes and failures, slip-ups and exceptional moments. Not just for this one person, but everyone that reports to you. You must be evaluating everyone evenly. Don't fall into the trap of starting your documentation when you want to finally take some action—it's too late then.
  • Communicate often, meet regularly. It is vitally important (especially during the first few months) to make sure you are communicating regularly with your new employee. It is through these chats and meetings that you are double-checking that they are still clear regarding expectations and performance and you are dealing with issues as they arise, and of course documenting them.

Doing the above will help to ensure that the employee gets off to the right start, is given an opportunity to succeed, is offered assistance should he or she start to fail, and provides you with the documentation to take further action should it prove necessary.

In summary, taking on a problem employee is hard work. For many, it is often more trouble than it is worth and something that should not be entered into without a great deal of thought.  Should you choose to do so (or are forced into it), you need to approach the situation with a plan and with consistent behavior as a manager/supervisor. Know, as well, that it will take extra energy and attention on your part from the beginning. Should all go well, you may take a diamond-in-the rough and end up with a star employee. If not, you will at least have made the effort and have the documentation to deal with the employee in a way that their other supervisors failed to do in the past.

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