A TechRepublic member writes in to ask:

Question: How do I deal with an employee who does satisfactory work, occasionally excellent work, but who refuses to be part of the team? He consistently prefers to work alone. He is also unkempt and badly groomed.

On the one hand, I want to leave him to do his job. On the other, he is creating a negative environment in the IT suite. Due to his isolationist behavior, the remainder of my staff feels like they are tiptoeing on eggshells in his presence.

Answer: Well, it sounds like you actually have two questions: one about a technically talented employee who has teamwork issues, and a second about personal appearance. Fortunately, both problems have the same solution: Quantify your expectations and then enforce those minimum standards without revamping the employee’s entire routine.

In both cases, the manager’s quandary is that teamwork and personal appearance are, ultimately, subjective standards. Some employees might actually prefer working with a peer whom you’ve described as “isolationist,” although that certainly doesn’t sound like the case in your situation. I’ve worked at companies where the most respected developers are absolute slobs who never come out of their offices; during the startup phase of TechRepublic, I and some other members of our launch team were known to roam the halls after an all-nighter with less than meticulous grooming, I can assure you. And in more formal HR terms, personal demeanor and hygiene (if your grooming concerns extend that far) are highly touchy subjects, since they broach issues such as gender equity and cultural sensitivity—people from disparate cultures simply have differing standards of good grooming, in some cases.

My best advice is to revisit the employee’s formal job description and the company’s formal policies and create parameters that set acceptable standards in both areas, but also allow you to follow your best instincts and “leave him to do his job.” On the teamwork issue, focus on tactical points of team contact that truly are fundamental to getting the job done. Include tasks such as:

  • Participating constructively in code review meetings.
  • Making at least one suggestion a month to improve team processes.
  • Reviewing competitive systems/products and giving a brief update at team meetings.

I’ve found that “isolationist” employees tend to be very tactical, so I’d be careful to make sure any goals you give the employee have some obvious, measurable takeaway. At least at the outset, let teamwork-building be a secondary benefit of the exercise—isolationists, like everybody else, hate busywork.

On the matter of his grooming, talk to your HR department about any stated policies your company has on the issue. In most cases, dress and appearance policies are based largely on the nature of your workspace; such polices tend to be a greater point of emphasis where employees often have contact with clients or the public. In any case, definitely pay a visit to your HR department for a little advice on this deceptively complicated issue.

Lastly, I’d surmise from the tone of your note that this employee is not the most popular member of your team; your quick injection of the grooming issue gives me the impression of the “dog pile” effect that’s so common in problematic team dynamics. I recently went through a coaching challenge of a similar nature. My employees had some legitimate concerns with a peer’s performance, but they mingled those concerns with their personal annoyance at this peer’s demeanor and personal habits, which I must confess would strike many people as peculiar. The result was a needlessly protracted conflict that was simply good for no one. When personality conflicts muddy the waters, it’s much tougher to home in on performance issues and make needed progress.

Take a few minutes to remind your other team members of their peer’s positive contributions, and be sure to make them quantify their complaints about him in terms of missed deadlines, wasted resources, or faulty deliverables. Keeping the focus on the job, not the personalities involved, will help the situation smooth itself out.

Dig a little before you seek out a direct confrontation
Another TechRepublic member asks:

Question: How should I deal with an IT staff member who shows up late for work every day, leaves early, has very frequent sick leaves, etc.? Should I directly face him with the fact that I’m not satisfied with such behavior and that his attitude is badly influencing the other employees?

Answer: My first reaction to your note was that I’d confront the employee immediately, and if I didn’t see improvement quickly, I’d show the truant employee the door. I’m guessing that would be most managers’ response—that kind of stuff drives us crazy.

But on further reflection, I’m given pause by your mention that the employee in question takes frequent sick leaves. I don’t know your company’s policy on allocated sick time, but if the employee is missing work beyond the allowed number of sick days, then you need to get your HR department involved as soon as possible.

In the world of common sense, I’d take the employee’s sick leaves as a sign that you need to have a candid conversation with him about factors outside work that may be affecting his performance. I’d start by noting the obvious problems of attendance, but before you lay down any ultimatums, ask the employee if factors you may not know about are affecting his ability to work a set number of hours. You never know, there could be a serious health problem in his family, or he may be facing another issue that your company can address through a well-care program or perhaps by shifting his schedule.

I can’t stress the following point enough—ask if there’s any way the company can help the employee; don’t demand an explanation of why he’s late all the time. You must respect employees’ privacy in these matters, both for legal and goodwill reasons.

Close the conversation by noting that the company’s policies on attendance are clear and that everyone must abide by them. I wouldn’t get into team morale issues in your first conversation on the matter; it may seem to the employee that you’ve rushed to judgment in his case. Hopefully, you’ll have identified some areas where you can support the employee and resolve the problem. If he chooses not to share any mitigating factors with you, then at least your path is now clear to put him on a formal performance review plan, possibly leading to termination, if the attendance problems persist.

As I said earlier, late employees drive everybody crazy, and ultimately you can’t tolerate that conduct.

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