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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

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
  • 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
  • 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.