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When Good Employees Go Bad

How do you handle formerly perfect employees who have turned into problems? This expert has some tips.

Let's say you've got an employee you think is pretty much close to perfect. This staff member has continually been productive, cooperative and successful, and has always contributed positively to the work effort. They're responsive to direction and input from others, take initiative, complete their work in a timely manner, ask appropriate questions, and willingly participate in work-related events. Their mood is positive and upbeat, and they're a joy to be around.

Recently, however, their productivity has tanked. They're no longer cooperative, productive or self-motivated, and they may be irritable or even depressed. They're not getting their work done and their formerly sunny disposition has a little black rain cloud right over it.

If this is the case, it doesn't take Sigmund Freud to tell you that your employee is experiencing some kind of event that's sucking the energy, enthusiasm and productivity right out of them. You know it, and, most likely, other people know it, too.

So what do you do when an effective employee's work output begins to take a tumble? When your formerly close-to-perfect employee turns into a problem?

First, realize that no change occurs without some form of awareness, either internally (within the individual) or externally (from the boss, colleagues, significant others, etc.). The easiest way to gain insight into the problem or issue is to speak directly with the employee.

But wait. Before you interact with that employee, you'll want to prepare yourself for a frank discussion with that employee by first gathering any necessary data. That might include first discussing your concerns with the employee's direct supervisor or team leader; looking into their productivity levels; reviewing performance factors, including quality and error rates; taking a look at their absentee records; and reviewing any complaints made to your HR manager. Then examine their job description to understand exactly what the employee is supposed to be doing as opposed to what you think they should be doing. What you want to do is gain as complete a picture of the situation as possible before you speak to the employee. But do it quickly! Enough time has passed since this out-of-the-ordinary behavior pattern began--no need to waste more time.

Next, ask the employee to meet you in a neutral space, such as the conference room or some other quiet area. Avoid meeting in the employee's office or workspace, since that can be seen as an invasion of turf. (After your discussion, your employee will have no "safe" haven to return to.)

If no neutral space is available, then meet in your office. Ask the employee in and invite them to sit down. The goal is to create a positive atmosphere where the two of you can talk openly and honestly with each other about the employee's job performance. Remember, you're relating to a valued employee whose work has generally been positive and effective. Something now is wrong, and your goal is to learn what the issue is and to create mutually agreeable methods and steps to reverse that downward slope of productivity.

Try to avoid sitting behind your desk--you don't want to set up a barrier to communication or create an adversarial atmosphere. If possible, sit at a round table so you don't appear to be in a power position or too distant from the employee. If a table's not available, pull your chair out from behind your desk and sit next to the person. Create positive rapport by maintaining eye contact, keeping your arms and legs uncrossed, and having a pleasant look on your face. Even though you're in charge, you need to avoid coming off as "the big boss" who's coming down on an underling for poor job performance.

Begin the conversation with a positive tone of voice and on a positive note. Talk about the employee's past successes and praise past accomplishments. If it's appropriate, mention potential plans for their near future and career path.

Then, while maintaining eye contact, you can take one of two tacks. You can be fairly straightforward and mention that "Things seem to be going wrong (or not well, or not consistent with past performance, or something similar)" as based on several criteria, which you can present at this time, including complaints, performance data, absentee records, unusual behavior and so on.

Or you can be more general and ask them, "How would you evaluate your recent accomplishments (or behavior, or attitude, or mood)?" If you use this latter approach, you have to be prepared for the employee to respond that "Everything seems to be going well...perhaps not perfectly, but certainly passably." If this is the case, then you need to use the data you collected to show that "all is not well."

Be firm about your beliefs that all is not well, but don't be overbearing: Coming on too strong will usually prompt an employee to deny or minimize any problems or difficulties. Your goal is to encourage this person to realize that you're aware of the difficulties they've been having, and to open up and participate in a discussion about what's really going on and how you two can turn it around so the employee can return to their former productive self.

If the employee tries to negate your information and appears resistant to the possibility that something's wrong, don't push the point. Instead, simply refer to the data and talk about their recent performance. It's possible that the individual doesn't want to admit to having any problems such as issues at home, problems with alcohol or drugs, lack of competence, or fears and anxieties). Your goal is not to force them to admit to a problem but rather to look at the hard facts of a decrease in productivity, regardless of the cause.

Often, at this point, the employee will admit to decreased output or performance. Then you can begin to look into ways to turn their behavior around. Perhaps more training or closer supervision is needed; perhaps more appropriate work tools or implements are required. Maybe their work schedule needs to be modified to allow for daycare drop-off and pick-up. Or maybe they just need a few days off to relax and de-stress. You may even want to discuss the benefits of seeking a counselor or social worker who can help them deal with the causes and impact of whatever the underlying issue is. In any case, no matter what they're problem is, your concern is for their well being as well as for a return to their previous positive levels of performance.

No matter what approach you take to working with a performance issue, the key to remember is that you value this individual and the individual's previous work ethic and output. Your task--and the task of the individual involved--is to come up with a plan for turning that former productive employee back into a standout performer.

Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.

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