How to Confront an Unproductive Employee

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78530804Managers may not think of themselves as firemen, responding to crises with disciplined and well-considered action in an effort to contain potentially volatile firestorms. But this is often the case, especially when an employee’s production dips far below the line of acceptability.

Ultimately, the workplace requires its team members to conform to uniform and realistic performance expectations. There are, undoubtedly, times when an employee’s productivity falters for an extended period. Confronting this underperforming employee is one of the most gut-wrenching and stressful duties for which a manager is responsible. However difficult, managing poor performance remains critical to establishing harmony within the work environment.
A Case In Point:
Consider Kelli, a manager overseeing a group of six employees in the crowded billing office of a small hotel group. One of her employees, Ellen, has spent thirty years with the company, hired only three years after the company’s founding. Although sprightly and personable, Ellen’s work ethic, normally considered average, has lapsed in recent weeks.
To complicate matters, Ellen interacts excessively with her coworkers. While her friendly nature is appreciated, the non-stop chatter detracts from the company’s emphasis on quick-turnaround billing practices.
Like most of the company’s employees, Kelli likes Ellen, but she also realizes the situation is rapidly deteriorating from simple nuisance to glaring problem. And Kelli, like most managers, dreads having to challenge a tenured and otherwise amiable employee. A private meeting, Kelli knows, is required; but she’s having trouble coming up with a process that will both convey her message and avoid alienating her colleague.
Simple Steps for Maximum Outcome
“You can diffuse the potential for explosive counseling sessions with basic techniques,” advises Joe Gilliam in his book The Manager’s Role as Coach. “Set the stage by understanding confrontation and having some questions to answer to improve sub-standard behavior. You can plan around the guidelines for the session.”
Gilliam lists several pressure-reducing steps designed to effectively communicate the manager’s message while discouraging a negative or unhealthy emotional response. Some suggested tips for Kelli and other managers faced with getting an employee back on a productive track:
  • Make sure the changes are behavior-related, not targeted toward attitude. Behavior is the only real change that can be measured. Improved behavior will inevitably alter attitude.
  • Determine/define a minimum standard of job performance. The colleague can help map out the steps needed to meet the formalized standard, but the manager must define the goal. Follow-up sessions to assess progress, encouragement, and, if the problem persists, disciplinary action may all be required.
  • Maintain privacy during the meeting. According to Gilliam, privacy guarantees confidentiality and, crucially, ensures trust. Meetings should be held in a location where doors can be closed, possibly at a site separate from the office. He furthermore emphasizes that the manager should guarantee that the conversation is being conducted in strict confidence, and recommends asking the colleague for a similar commitment.
  • Avoid references to third-parties. Don’t say something like, “You know, Suzanne said this, so I thought it was time we talked.” This sort of statement gives credence to hearsay before consulting its subject.
  • Establish facts with clearly stated details, adhering to a three- or five-point description of those facts before the session. Also avoid broad or general words and phrases, such as “always,” “never,” “all the time,” and “everybody.” Words like these only serve to antagonize and discourage the listener.
  • Assess the probable impact on the team member, considering the potential reactions. “Anticipating the team member’s reaction will be valuable preparation for your session,” writes Gilliam. He recommends pre-assessing how the colleague has reacted to similar exchanges in the past to head-off any potential drama.
Gilliam additionally recommends conducting the counseling session in a prompt and timely manner, without interruptions or distractions; crafting in advance the meeting agenda; and corralling one’s emotions prior to the beginning of the session by using techniques like breath and voice modulation.
View the Horizon: Respond to Smoke Signals, Avoid the Blaze
No one enjoys a work environment in which every movement and emotion is micro-managed. These types of repressive workplaces breed employee dissatisfaction and correlatively high turnover rates. Managers must strike a balance between creating a comfortable workplace environment and stressing healthy work habits.
As any manager knows, approaching an employee who fails to meet expectations is always an unpleasant task. Left unchecked, a worrisome situation can become intolerable. Avoiding a specific performance and behavior issue can in the end prove detrimental to the employee if he or she remains unaware of the problem. Meanwhile, it can also engender frustration among colleagues.


More optimistically, when swiftly and effectively addressed, the smoldering situation can be readily extinguished. Like firemen, a manager must dutifully and efficiently answer the bell. Ignored or improperly handled, smoke from a distant fire can lead to a potential blaze. And that is a “no smoking” rule worth enforcing.



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