A Matter of Trust: Giving Workers Second Chances

By Brian O’Connell October 14, 2020
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A Matter of Trust: Giving Workers Second Chances

​Do underperforming employees deserve a second chance in the workplace?

It's a good question with no clear answer. Many managers have tried to rehabilitate a problematic staffer. Some have succeeded, while others have let the employee go.

Managers who have tried to rehabilitate problematic workers say that the process can be rigorous.

"I'm dealing with a second-chance employee situation right now," said David Adams, a business technology professional who builds and leads software development teams at Sirus Digital in Cumming, Ga. "We have a software developer who has struggled making the transition from another team."

Part of the problem is that some of the employee's teammates were impatient with her relatively slow progression, Adams noted. "When you've been [a top] performer in the past, changing teams and technologies that devalue your prior accomplishments can be a real cause of frustration," he said.

Adams wound up moving the employee to another area of the company. "She needed to go to a team that has stronger performers and more members capable of coaching and development than her current one," he said. "This creates the space for a much better outcome overall."

Now, Adams finds himself managing the employee much more closely. "She and I are now discussing frankly where she stands from a capability and skill set standpoint," he said. "There will be specific milestones and expectations that she will need to meet to show progress in this development stage."

In addition to meeting with the staffer to review progress, Adams will be getting feedback from the stronger members on her new team, allowing them to help gauge her progress as well. "If there's good progress during this learning and measuring phase, she'll graduate to being [an] equal member of the team," he noted.

"If not, we'll know that she needs to be in another place within our organization or find an opportunity elsewhere," Adams said.

A Sensitive Issue

Employers can benefit from giving employees another chance in a different situation, just as Adams is trying to accomplish. But Elyse Kaye, founder of Bloom Bras, a boutique women's fashion company in San Francisco, says that "in my 20-plus years as a manager, I have seen a 50/50 success rate with second-chance employees."

If it's a matter of employee misbehavior, Kaye says she will overlook the first occurrence." Poor behavioral choices include texting in a meeting, showing up late, not proofreading before sending out e-mails and gossiping about co-workers.

If the employee is a valued asset, these behaviors need to be addressed. "It's a time suck to go back to the drawing board bringing in new talent," and then training them and acclimating them to the company environment, she added.

Kaye said she can point to several examples of employees who were able to turn their work habits around with help. "I do believe in giving the benefit of the doubt," she said. "One of my longest-term employees was a second-chance employee 15 years ago, and I'm glad she stayed."

In another second-chance case, Kaye gave a problem employee several opportunities to turn over a new leaf. After some hard managing and coaching, she fired the staffer.

"For six months, we had repeated discussions on how I could get her up to speed, but at the end of the day, it becomes more of a stressful situation," she said. "The ex-employee found a new job that was a better fit and is flourishing."

Get Smart About Second Chances

If managers give employees second chances in the right way, they may never have a more loyal employee.

Amy Rollo, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in workplace issues at Heights Family Counseling in Houston, Texas, has these suggestions for managers mulling second-chance employee opportunities:

Make the right diagnosis. Managers and bosses need to understand the difference between red flag behaviors and honest human errors. "When you provide a second chance to someone who had an honest human error, that person can show up with loyalty and effort the remainder of their tenure," Rollo said. "If you give a second chance to a red flag behavior, you are asking for that behavior to be repeated."

Know the deal breakers. Some behaviors that do not warrant second chances include lying, stealing and a negative attitude that creates a toxic work environment. "These are employees you do not want on your team," Rollo said.

Watch the response. Managers need to consider how someone responds to their errors. "Do they take responsibility, or do they make excuses and not own up to it? Do they show remorse and have an action plan of how they will correct it?" she asked. "When a second chance is provided, managers should make a plan with the employee that goes over how to learn and grow from the error. Most errors can be teaching moments if handled correctly."

Then, discuss what the worker will do to improve and how you will help.

"You can set a follow-up date in a few months' time and measure progress, if any," said Mark Webster, co-founder of Authority Hacker, a U.K.-based online marketing education company. "You can then objectively say, 'OK, I held up my end of the bargain. Did you?' The majority of times, the employee will improve and you could find yourself with a new valuable asset on your team."

If Nothing Else Works

If, after a predetermined time, the employee's performance hasn't improved and old habits are emerging again, it's time to consider cutting the cord.

"Terminating people is awful, mainly because of a manager's own guilt," said Dave Labowitz, a business coach at Dave Labowitz Business & Leadership Coaching in Los Angeles. "The key to a guilt-free termination is in knowing that you've done everything you can to support someone."

This is where a dose of introspection will help a manager.

"If you're truly convinced they're going to fail no matter what, then it's probably better to terminate them immediately because you're unable to give them a true second chance," Labowitz said.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide

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