Some Terminations of Employees with ADD Are Preventable

Effective supervision can resolve performance issues

By Sarah Babineau Mar 17, 2011
An employee with attention deficit disorder (ADD), a condition characterized by a short attention span, impulsive behavior and hyperactivity, might have a variety of performance issues that can lead an employer to consider termination as the only option. But a few supervisory tricks might bring such an employee, whether their condition is known or not, back from the brink of dismissal.

“Linda,” a recently promoted supervisor of a call center at a mid-size retailer, had just such an experience when one of her direct reports, “Scott,” had a series of unresolved performance issues.

“We need you to help Scott improve his performance or we need you to start the paperwork to fire him,” Linda’s manager said. “He’s been here two years, and it doesn’t seem like anything we’ve tried has helped. I’ll give you six weeks to get a solid start on the documentation.”

The only reason Scott had not yet been fired was because he was so likeable. Customers often took time to write letters saying how wonderful he was, even if they were upset when they first called.

Linda understood that Scott could not continue performing below standards. But, like everyone else, she thought he had valuable qualities. Thus, she made a list of six areas in which he needed improvement, noted her six-week deadline and brought Scott into her office to level with him.

Approaching a Solution

After explaining that his job was on the line, Linda assured Scott that she would do everything she could to help him succeed.

She started by observing Scott at work and noticed that his desk was covered with stacks of paper and that he used a complicated system of checklists to keep track of tasks. In addition, she noted that Scott was great with customers and possessed a high level of technical knowledge that was greater than or equal to his peers.

Linda spent an hour or two working with Scott twice a week, helping him to organize his desk and create new ways of storing and accessing the information he needed to do his job. And she stopped by his desk several times a week so he could bring issues to her attention and she could let him know when he had done something well.

The Results

At the end of three weeks, Scott had made improvements in some of his problem areas. And after six weeks, he improved in all of the problem areas. Linda reviewed the original list, added the word “Done!” in red next to each item, and then wrote eight new items on the list with a new due date.

Instead of putting Scott on formal corrective action, Linda noted what he had accomplished, commended him for his hard work and asked him if he was ready to tackle a few new items. Scott said he was ready and then posted the list Linda had given him as a reminder of what he had accomplished and as motivation for his new goals.

Moreover, Linda was able to present a favorable report of Scott’s progress to her manager, along with phone statistics, paperwork completion rates and accuracy metrics to prove it. After another six weeks, Scott’s performance had improved to an acceptable level and he was no longer facing termination.

Accommodating Work Styles

Unknowingly, Linda had provided Scott with the kinds of accommodations that can help an employee with ADD be effective. She:

  • Set up work structures that were more effective.
  • Made small but frequent changes to ensure that he didn’t become overwhelmed.
  • Reminded Scott frequently of his strong points, especially on days when he made mistakes.
  • Took a hands-on approach to helping him clean up his workspace.
  • Worked hard to earn his trust.
  • Wrote down goals and what was needed to reach them, set deadlines, and checked in frequently to address any concerns.
  • Found compromises when Scott’s anxiety over the changes threatened to slow his progress.

Scott’s next performance review included plenty of positive feedback and the news that he would receive a merit increase. He then revealed that he had sought help for his job problems from the company’s employee assistance program. That had led to a diagnosis of ADD. He said he was afraid to tell anyone at work he was getting treatment for ADD because he thought it would make things worse.

Managing Performance of Employees with ADD

The accommodations Scott needed were not expensive or difficult and were made without prior knowledge of his diagnosis. To manage employees with ADD or the kind of behavior Scott exhibited, people managers should:

  • Provide structure. Enlist the employee’s cooperation to create a task structure that works, making sure that the kind of structure the employee wants will work. Refine the structure until it is comfortable for the employee and effective.
  • Break large tasks into a series of small tasks. People with ADD benefit from the positive energy of accomplishing tasks, and that can help increase confidence. The feeling of success can even help them concentrate.
  • Use reminders. Charts, lists, whiteboards, alarms, timers and other forms of notification help employees with ADD remember that the task they are working on is part of a larger process. Having a visible chart of the flow of their work makes them aware of where they are in the process, how much work still needs to be done and how much they have achieved.
  • Listen to the employee. Employees with ADD might want help but might not know what they need. Try different solutions and find a way to compromise so that the employee’s anxiety doesn’t cause him or her to revert to old habits.

Managers do not have to be frustrated by the lack of organization, time orientation or poor prioritization that those with ADD might display. By making it clear that they are there to help employees succeed, managers can help their organizations reap the benefits that such workers can bring to the workplace.

Sarah Babineau works as an HR analyst specializing in equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. She holds a master’s degree in HR administration and recently completed a research study on employees with cognitive conditions.

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