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.