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One Bad Apple

Before the whole bunch spoils, train managers to deal with poor performers.

HR Magazine, December 2004

Laura Gruber, an administrator in medical imaging, had a poor performer on her hands. “I had an employee with excessive unscheduled absences,” she recalls. Fortunately for her and the employee’s co-workers, she knew exactly what to do. “Initially, I talked to the individual and made my expectations clear. The employee didn’t think I was going to take any action, but I did. After the next absence, I did a verbal warning, then a written warning. Eventually, that person ended up being terminated.”

Gruber was able to handle the situation with confidence because her organization, Children’s Memorial Hospital, gave her the tools and the support she needed. In March, the Chicago-based hospital started a training program to deal with managers’ inability to address their employees’ performance issues. The initiative came about after employee attitude surveys revealed that effectively managing poor performance was an organizationwide problem.

Poor performers exist in every corporate office and on every factory floor. They’re easy to spot: They’re the ones who consistently arrive late and leave early, who fabricate excuses when things go wrong or deadlines are missed, and who cause colleagues to work overtime to fix their mistakes.

Nearly one-quarter of federal employees believe their co-workers are not performing “up to par,” according to a study by Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

In the private sector, Keith Ayers, president of Integro Leadership Institute, a consultancy in West Chester, Pa., says his studies indicate that poor performers make up between 11 percent and 16 percent of workers.

Those numbers tell only part of the story, however. Poor performers are like a cancer that spreads throughout the entire workplace. “Actively disengaged workers tend to spread discontent. The impact on profitability can be enormous,” says Robert Moore, CEO of The Effectiveness Connection, a consulting firm in Tampa, Fla.

That impact on the bottom line comes in the form of lowered productivity and morale, and increased turnover. “In organizations where management imposes no consequences for poor performance, high achievers will leave because they don’t want to be where mediocrity is tolerated. But mediocre performers will remain because they know they’re safe. The entire organizational culture, along with its reputation in the marketplace, can be affected by poor performers,” says Francie Dalton, president of Dalton Alliances Inc., a consulting firm in Columbia, Md.

Dick Grote, author of Discipline Without Punishment (AMA, 1995) and president of Grote Consulting Corp. in Addison, Texas, adds, “The poor performer is not only making the supervisor’s life miserable, he is also making the other employees miserable. When a supervisor turns a blind eye, it’s a slap in the face to all of the good people who don’t have the ability to do something about the situation.”

Firing poor performers may seem like the best solution for everyone: Quickly carve out the cancer before it spreads, and you’re cured. However, experts say, it’s actually more cost-effective to invest time in poor-performing employees if they can be rehabilitated.

Most companies, however, either ignore the problem or fire the poor performer without attempting other solutions. Only 44 percent of U.S. workers feel employees are held accountable for their performance, and only 20 percent say their company helps poorly performing workers improve, according to WorkUSA 2004: An Ongoing Study of Employee Attitudes and Opinions by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a consulting firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“To terminate a worker is a costly failure, considering the cost of recruitment, selection, training, etc.,” says Susan Jespersen, SPHR, adjunct professor at the Minneapolis-based Business School of Management at Walden University.

There is a better way. Specific management training on handling poor performers can give managers the tools to ferret out the root cause of the performance issues and help their employees turn around their performance.

Managers Need Help

Almost one-third of managers are regarded as severely lacking in their ability to manage other people, according to a 2004 survey of HR managers by Right Management Consultants, a consultancy headquartered in Philadelphia.

“The managers who fail at addressing poor performance fall into three camps,” explains Jim Gulian, partner for Seattle-based MPCFilms, a media production company that creates training videos such as Painless Performance Improvement. “The first group just ignores the problem, reassigns workloads and hopes the poor performer will quit or become someone else’s problem. The second group talks to the team as a group, instead of the individual, which insults the good performers. The third group takes the poor performance as a personal insult and confronts the employee in a threatening way. This usually starts a downward spiral of accusations and documentation for termination.”

Given the right training by HR, however, managers can learn to approach poor performance issues in the right way. First, you have to find out if your managers need help. If you are hearing anecdotal evidence that poor performers aren’t being disciplined in your workplace, you need to investigate whether the problem is pervasive. Start by asking your employees. Warren Wint, managing director of London-based Total Success Training Ltd., recommends adjusting exit interviews to ask questions about satisfaction with co-workers and how managers handle poor performers. You may find, he says, that good employees are leaving because they are tired of picking up the slack from underperforming co-workers.

Another way to determine need is by asking specific questions in employee attitude surveys about management’s ability to handle poor performers. Similar to Children’s Memorial Hospital, MedStar Health, a health care provider in Columbia, Md., discovered the problem in its employee surveys in 2000 and 2002. The 2000 survey showed that “many departments tried to tackle the issue of managing poor performers at the local level,” says Margery E. Zylich, assistant vice president of operational communications and special projects. “But the 2002 survey data indicated little substantive improvement had been made.” As a result, MedStar instituted a four-hour training course on performance management skills.

Jeff Wuorio, a small-business consultant and author of CNBC Guide To Money and Markets (Wiley, 2001) in Buxton, Maine, advises, “Be proactive. If you have training in place before problems surface, then you never have to tread water.”

The Logistics

If a company provides managerial training at all, handling poor performers is usually a small subset of that overall, broad training. Often, that’s not enough.

Training should be offered to new managers, before annual performance reviews and when requested, suggests Beverly Burton, vice president of consulting for Right Management Consultants in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

Children’s Memorial Hospital offers a two-hour interactive course that is scheduled quarterly and delivered by in-house HR staff. However, “it can also be held on demand,” says Keith Olson, director of organizational development at the hospital. “This flexibility has helped make the program a success.”

Thus, just-in-time training is vital. Managers may not need the training for a long time, but when they do, they need it immediately and desperately. “First there must be a mind-set shift from event-based training to a process of ongoing learning,” says Moore.

Grote makes a strong argument for just-in-time training for any manager who’s dealing with a poor performer: “An HR manager who can immediately say, ‘Here’s how to handle that situation,’ will be seen as a hero. The payoff is enormous.”

Just-in-time training should be done in-house because of the frequency and immediacy necessary. However, companies might consider an outside vendor for the initial training. MedStar decided to use Watson Wyatt Worldwide for its program because “our internal training staff at the local entities is slim, focusing primarily on regulatory requirements and orientations,” says Zylich.


The initial training should give managers a road map to follow when they determine that an employee is languishing. The training course should include the following:

  • When to begin counseling. Frequently, managers wait until they’re ready to fire someone before they approach HR, without having documented anything, says Martha Duesterhoft, principal in Human Resource Ally, an HR consulting firm in Arlington, Texas. “Then you have to start from scratch, and it takes a long time, which is frustrating,” she says. Grote agrees, “If managers start taking action much earlier, there’s a higher likelihood of bringing about change.”

    Managers should begin counseling when they first detect a problem with performance and should document every major discussion in case it is needed for future disciplinary action. Frequent, specific feedback is the key to keeping underperforming employees on track. “Often the greatest hurdle is the inability of the line manager to accept there is a performance problem,” says Bob Manuel, partner at Charter Solutions, a training consultancy in Lancaster, England. “Taking the first step to counsel poor performers is often the most difficult step for a newly appointed manager.”

  • How to find the root cause. Why is an employee failing? Is it a lack of skills, poor work ethic or bad attitude? Or is there some non-work-related root cause, such as illness, substance abuse or loss of a loved one? If so, inform managers of programs available to deal with these problems (i.e., your company’s employee assistance program), so they can advise employees. If there aren’t extenuating circumstances, focus on the ways in which the employee is failing—make professional observations, not personal ones—and create an improvement plan.
  • How to give constructive criticism. Forty-three percent of employees feel they don’t get enough guidance to improve their performance, according to the WorkUSA 2004 survey by Watson Wyatt Worldwide. “Giving performance feedback is the No. 1 dreaded task of managers. The best manner to overcome this is through modeling and practice,” says Jespersen. A good training course will allow managers to role-play.

Grote advises, “One reason why managers are reluctant [to confront employees] is they don’t know how.” He recommends that managers follow this script:

  1. Say, “[Employee’s name], I have a problem.”
  2. Describe the gap between the employee’s performance and the performance needed for the job. For instance, “I need the systems report on my desk by Tuesday every week. For the last six weeks, I’ve received it on Tuesday only once.”
  3. Say, “Tell me about it,” and then remain quiet while the employee talks.

“Once they get good at using this script, they can vary it,” Grote says.

  • When to terminate. If attempts to rehabilitate performance fail, poor performers must be fired. Teach managers how to document the steps they take to minimize the risk of termination litigation and when to recognize that termination is the only option. “Make sure you document well,” advises Gruber.

Last, Ted Bililies, who is a partner at ghSMART and Co., a consultancy headquartered in Chicago, emphasizes the importance of following up after the training: “Within two weeks of the training, remind the person of the core learning. At 60 days, ask the participant what he has learned, how he has applied the knowledge and what has worked.”

The result? “Managers who have taken the training tend to perform more helpful performance appraisals, take corrective action more effectively and confidently, do a better job of documenting their efforts to improve performance, and report that most employees respond in the desired manner,” says Suzanne S. Clifton, president of Executive Staffing Services, a staffing firm in Raleigh, N.C.

An HR professional’s job is to provide managers with the tools they need to have the tough conversations in which they either help poor performers improve or fire them. “The HR person needs to be side by side with the manager every step of the way,” says Bililies.

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.


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