When Good Employees Go Bad – Part 2

The Answer's Gotta Be Here Somewhere

After repeated 4am awakenings, I find I need to write about something that has me frustrated and frazzled. Recently an employee in my small business has taken a turn for the worst. She’s always had performance issues but until now the strengths outweighed the weaknesses. Then a few months ago, she began to be increasingly irritable, defensive, and difficult to reach by phone or email when not at work.

She’s been with me for several years, and it’s occcurred to me that she may be burnt out and/or simply bored. If that’s the case, I’m in a quandry as to how to improve the situation. Over time I’ve given her increasing responsibility, to the point that she’s become the person in charge when I’m not in the shop, but I think the day-to-day routine may be wearing her down without challenging her. It’s a small shop and there’s not a lot more I can do to create satisfying challenges.

I took the first step to manage the situation by outlining the issues both in person and in writing. I specified that she’s on a performance warning for two months and needs to correct the problems in that time frame or sooner. She listened well during the conversation, then left a note the next day saying she intends to reply but it may take a while. It’s been a week and no reply.

In the meantime a new and different issue has arisen. About a month ago I gave her a project to complete that falls outside her usual purview. I offered to supplement her salary with a one-time payment for completion of the project, saying that if she wanted to bring others into it she would need to share part of the money with them, and she agreed. We agreed it would take two weekends, with one in between for her to take care of personal matters. It’s been month and the project isn’t done.

So I assigned another employee and – let’s call the problem employee Sarah – Sarah can’t seem to coordinate with her. She has twice failed to show up to work on the project at the agreed time, and the new person is angry. Sarah has arrived at noon or later on Saturday, then left again for a few hours in the late afternoon. She comes back in the evening to work a couple of more hours. To my knowledge she worked once on a Sunday and then only for a few hours. The project drags on and Sarah remains disorganized and sporadically attentive.

Increasingly I’ve stepped in to manage an unmanaged project and I’m angry about the need for that. Should I tell Sarah the progress on the project isn’t acceptable and add it to the heretofore short list of performance issues? If I do, will that confuse things? Sarah’s intelligent and I believe she’s taken note of my stepping in. Yesterday she used her regular shift to work on the project. So, can I assume it’s “point taken” from her point of view? Such assumptions are anathema to good performance management, but explicitly critisizing her progress on the project might seem like putting innumerable obstacles in her path to continued employment.

Sarah and I meet regularly on Friday mornings, so that’s a good time to broach the subject. Now I get to spend anxious days figuring out how to confront her in a productive way. Owning a business would be much easier if employees weren’t so damnably human (read “flawed.”) Come to think of it, you can add bosses to that.

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