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By Darryl Stewart

Be careful who you label as a problem employee

Years ago, I was asked by a mid-level manager what to do about what she referred to as a “B employee” on her team. This person was a front-line manager. By the definition I had previously shared with her, a B employee was someone who usually did what was required, generally showed up on time, generally did not cause trouble, occasionally showed signs of great performance, and occasionally showed poor performance.

I asked for more details on what the person did well and was told there was rarely ever an issue operationally in her small department. The work got done and problems were remedied quickly and effectively.

“Then what was the problem?,” I asked. It seems administration was the problem. Reports were often late. Staff reviews were done regularly, but not documented properly—stuff like that.

I asked if these issues had been addressed clearly with the person and the answer was, yes, they had been raised at a recent performance review. “Had you brought this up prior to the performance review?” “No”. “So you have told her only once about your concerns?” “Yes”. “When was the last time you gave this person any feedback at all on her performance prior to this recent review?” “About two years ago.”

I thought to myself, I think I may know who the real B player is in this situation! 

I asked if the review had included any positive feedback. It had. It was about how she always volunteered to train new staff or deal with an emergency, never letting down her manager or the team if something came up. There was also positive feedback about how she was way more diligent than anyone else about making sure the people she and her staff supported were never let down.

I let on that this sounded like an A player to me: someone who almost always goes the extra mile and sets a great example for the people around them. If admin work was an issue, far more feedback was required. Perhaps she should get some support with her admin work given how much she was excelling in every other area.

This conversation did not go the way the manager expected it to. I know that.

I was very firm in my conviction based on many experiences I have had as a leader over the years. I have learned that people rarely change much. I have learned that people never change if you don’t give them any feedback. And, often, that feedback has to be repeated when dealing with things really hard for the person to change and even then you need to recognize that the impact might be minimal. The best thing to do is to make the weak area irrelevant to that person’s work. Take as much of it as possible out of the equation and add in more of what they are already good at. In this case, perhaps get one of this person’s reports to do some of her admin work. There is almost always somebody who loves admin work on a team. An employee with the kind of commitment to getting the job done, as described above, is decidedly more rare. 

The motto: Be careful about labelling one of your staff a B. Look in the mirror first. You may be the problem, not them. Being the leader requires that you do everything possible to help your staff become A’s before you can label anyone a B.

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