So you have an employee who has some productivity and behavior problems. You’ve put off dealing with it because you thought the problems would resolve themselves. But now the rest of the people on your staff have begun to feel resentful. What should you do?

An employee with performance problems is not just a manager’s problem. It’s a problem for the whole staff. Staff members can resent taking up the slack for a poor performer, and rightly so. Hostility and anger from a problem employee can permeate and infect the whole environment. Ungrounded cynicism can also spread to the rest of your staff, even your good performers.

For these reasons, it’s important that you take action with an employee who is exhibiting problems with productivity and behavior as soon as you detect there is a problem. Here are some of the best ways to approach this tricky issue.

Identify the problem

First, you should identify the problem and try to find the reasons behind it. Why should you do this instead of just starting dismissal procedures? There are several reasons.

Staff morale

You don’t want your staff operating under the assumption that the axe will fall at the first sign of a mistake. As a manager, arming yourself with a God complex can be tempting and seem less complicated, but do resist the temptation. No matter what you think, people are more productive in a supportive environment than they are in an intimidating one. And besides, a problem employee who is “rehabilitated” could become one of your organization’s greatest assets one day.

It’s not always the case, but sometimes problematic employee behavior is an indication that there’s a bigger or more pervasive problem in the department or organization. Maybe the employee is just not in the right role; a change in duties could turn everything around. Talk to the employee, then ask yourself if the problems are caused by organization-induced obstacles that are beyond the employee’s control. Is the working environment respectful? Is its culture exclusive of those who don’t “fit the mold”? Are your departmental rules counter to institutional policy? Is an employee’s perceived bad attitude just a reflection of your own bias in favor of a preferred communication style? It could be that a supervisory deficiency is at fault.

You may find, however, that your department is not to blame and that the problem rests solely with the employee. If that’s the case, then direct your efforts accordingly. Begin your employee performance improvement process.

The bottom line

Believe it or not, fixing an existing problem is cheaper than recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement employee. (Keep in mind that I’m addressing run-of-the-mill performance problems. This statement wouldn’t be true if you’d just discovered that the employee has been covertly selling off parts of your technical inventory.) Also, if you fire an employee prematurely, even for what you know are legitimate reasons, you could set your organization up for some hefty legal fees. If you haven’t worked with human resources to follow a standard and well-documented dismissal process, there’s a good chance that the employee will feel wrongfully terminated and will sue. Don’t forget that federal law, institutional policies, and special status through entitlements affect the disciplinary process.

Dealing with the problem
A while back, TechRepublic member Mike Malesevich told us about a six-step process he uses when helping employees improve their performance. The steps are:

1. Describe the employee’s specific performance issues

* Talk about the issues, not about the employee’s poor effort.

* Describe the results of the employee’s performance.

2. Describe the expected standards of employee performance

Be specific. Don’t say someone has a “poor” attitude; instead list specific occurrences that illustrate problematic behavior.

3. Determine the cause of the performance issues

* Does the employee lack training, skills, knowledge?

* Is there a lack of motivation, incentive?

* Are there external factors involved (family, financial, etc.)?

* Are there factors beyond the employee’s control affecting the performance?

4. Ask the employee for solution(s)

* What could the employee do to improve this situation?

5. Discuss each solution with the employee

* How will this solution help with the employee’s problem?

* Discuss your solution(s).

* Try to jointly improve upon the solutions.

6. Agree on specific actions to be done and a time frame to implement them

* Arrange for another meeting in the future to track the progress/results of the solution.

Malesevich says, “This outline has helped me assist others when their work seems to have slipped. It’s not perfect, but it lets employees know that others do care about their work and are trying to help. The best way to resolve performance issues is to tackle them early, before they become more deeply ingrained and harder to eradicate.”

And the best way to tackle performance issues early is to use a regular performance appraisal process. At the very least, conduct performance appraisals once a year. But it’s even better to conduct smaller evaluations every few months so that any information about performance problems doesn’t come as a surprise to the employee. Also, you can set performance goals at more frequent intervals and check more readily if they’re being met.

Effectively dealing with performance issues in an employee can be a long, intensive process. But it’s best to do it right.

Bottom line for IT Leaders

Fixing an existing personnel problem is cheaper than recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement employee. The fix can be a long process, but it’s worth it for purposes of team morale and budget.