How To Turn Things Around With a Problem Employee… Starting Now

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Resigned to the dreaded task of letting a problem employee go? Not so fast, says Gary Harpst. There still may be a chance to turn things around—or at least make the experience less soul-crushing for you both.

The warning signs are all there. Your employee (let’s call him Jeremiah) is calling in “sick” a lot more than seems plausible. He’s missing performance goals. Even worse, more than one customer has complained about his attitude. To your dismay – because letting someone go is one of the most painful tasks a leader ever must do – it’s starting to look like an ugly firing is inevitable. But is it really?

Not necessarily, says Gary Harpst, who’s been a CEO for 40 years. When you approach your “Jeremiah” with openness, honesty, and genuine caring, the job can sometimes be salvaged. And if it can’t, the exit doesn’t have to be horribly traumatic.

“Ideally, an employer will broach a conversation on the day of the hiring that lays the groundwork for a peaceful exit,” says Harpst, author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others (Wiley, April 2023, ISBN: 978-1-3941584-0-9, $25.00). “Both parties agree that they’ll do their best to make things work—but if the job turns out not to be the right fit, they’ll do the best they can to make the departure as painless as possible for all concerned.

Tips To Turn Things Around With A Problem Employee

“Unfortunately, not everyone held that first-day conversation,” he adds. “Hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. So the question is, if a firing is looming, is it too late to turn things around?  Maybe not, as long as both of you are willing to tell the truth and hold yourselves accountable.” Harpst offers a few tips:

Hold An Honest Conversation With The Employee Now. (Better Late Than Never!)

Say, “Things are not going well right now, and if you don’t make some changes, we will have to terminate your employment. I don’t want this to happen, so let’s talk about how we can turn this around now.” Explain what the employee has done wrong. Own your part in the problems, whether it’s not being clear enough on expectations, letting issues slide, fudging the truth to alleviate discomfort, or something else.

Clearly Define Your Expectations. Be Sure The New Employee Has The Resources To Meet Them.

Make sure they know what you expect them to do and when they’re expected to do it. Ask them to repeat back what they heard so you’re on the same page. This sets them up for success from this point on. Lack of clarity is a huge driver of failure.

“This is also a good opportunity to create buy-in,” says Harpst. “Ask them if they think these expectations are doable and make sure they agree with the plan. You might also point out trainings or other resources that can help.”

After This Conversation, Hold Regular Face-to-face Check-ins. This Shows The Employee You Care.

Harpst asserts that leaders should view caring about people, not as a means to an end, but as worthwhile in itself. Build the kind of relationship where you know if there are any issues outside of work weighing on their mind and see if there is anything you can do to help. Also, hold them accountable if they drop the ball on something.

“These check-ins keep people on track, but they also build the bedrock of a solid relationship,” says Harpst. “They help you communicate that you actually do care about the person. They also create psychological safety and build trust, because you’re showing them again and again that you want to hear the truth. Even if things don’t work out, you’ll be glad you built this trust as it will make the exit easier on both of you.”

From This Point On, Stop Letting Problems Slide.

Good leaders are compassionate, which can make it difficult to let people go. When we care about people, we naturally want to give them another chance. Sometimes, though, “another chance” crosses the line into enabling. While kindness serves us well most of the time, there are some instances where we must prioritize the success of the team and remember that there are other people counting on us to keep things running smoothly. 

Communicate immediately when things aren’t going well. Ask the other party to do the same. You both want ample notice if you need to make a shift. The last thing you want to do is surprise the person with bad news. Make sure they can see this coming, and when it’s time to part ways, they’ll remember the warnings you gave along the way. 

Make Sure Honest Feedback And Accountability Are A Two-Way Street.

You’re telling the employee the truth, but, just as important, be clear that you want the truth from them. By encouraging feedback, you may discover there’s a deeper organizational problem driving their poor performance or something you could do better to support their success. Likewise, don’t just hold them accountable. Hold yourself accountable, too, and admit it when you mess up.

“Don’t let them shift blame onto your shoulders and escape accountability for their own actions, but also make sure you aren’t doing that either,” says Harpst.

If You Do Have To Fire The Employee, Do It With (Tough) Love.

Be clear that this conversation does not change your decision to let them go, but is about your helping them to be more successful in their next role. Harpst shares an example of an interaction he had with a former employee, David, who could not get along with others and was being terminated.  

“As CEO, I did not know David personally, but I felt I should do something for David,” he recounts. “There appeared from nowhere within me an agape-like interest in this person. I met with him and slowly and carefully related the feedback that others had provided me on how he interacted with them, his belligerence, uncooperativeness, and unwillingness to take input. I told him I had no motive other than to help him see himself as others see him. 

“David broke down in tears,” Harpst continues. “He said he didn’t realize he came across this way and that no one had told him that before. I gently pointed out that was not true. Many people had tried, but he could not ‘hear’ them. By the end of the conversation, David understood how he came across. He sincerely thanked me for helping him. He said it would change his approach in his next job. He seemed relieved and refreshed in his outlook by the end.”

Conclusion

Harpst says when we end a work relationship with this kind of exit feedback, it can transform a termination into a growth experience.  

“People are sometimes more willing to honestly listen once the decision has been made,” says Harpst. “Just make it clear that you have their best interests at heart. People will be grateful that you cared enough to speak up. Never burn bridges in relationships.

“In any case, treat people with integrity regardless of how they treat you,” he adds. “Regardless of how the employee responds to what you have to say, you need to feel that you did your best to be a caring leader.”


About the Author

Gary Harpst is the author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. He is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst. LeadFirst was founded in 2000 (as Six Disciplines) with a mission of building effective leaders and helping small and mid-size companies manage change, grow, and execute.

About the Book:

Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others (Wiley, April 2023, ISBN: 978-1-3941584-0-9, $25.00) is available at bookstores nationwide, www.wiley.com, and from major online booksellers.

About Wiley:

Wiley, a global research and learning company, helps people and organizations develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Our online scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly journals, combined with our digital learning, assessment, and certification solutions, help universities, learned societies, businesses, governments, and individuals increase the academic and professional impact of their work.