Do you have an employee who just doesn’t seem to be performing up to snuff? Is there a way to rehabilitate that employee? Or do you have to choose between termination and tolerating inferior performance? Employee turnover is time consuming, disruptive, costly and often bad for office morale (including yours). Before jumping to the conclusion that the employee just isn’t working out, it’s worth making sure that the problem does not lie elsewhere. If you don’t eliminate that possibility, you may be doomed to experience the same song, second verse with the next employee.
Managers often think that employees don’t do what they are supposed to do because they don’t want to, don’t care or are incompetent. That would lead to the conclusion that the manager must terminate the employee or settle for poor performance. However, in his bestseller Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do and What to Do About It, Ferdinand Fournies points out that managers sometimes unwittingly create situations that cause the poor performance they complain about. What if getting better performance from your employee were as simple as changing your own behavior or restructuring something in the office? Would it be worth it?
Begin by determining the answers to the questions in this article. You should not assume that you know the answers, but rather, make inquiries of the employee designed to elicit evidence of the answers. For purpose of illustration, I may use some simple examples involving administrative staff, but the same principles apply to more difficult and complex performance and to lawyers as employees.
- Does the employee really know what you want? Often managers give vague instructions that leave out a lot of details, perhaps because the manager has not taken the time to think through the issue herself. Do you really know what you want? When I was a baby lawyer, a partner sent me back to the library again and again to research the res judicata issues on a case, but he still wasn’t satisfied with my product. Finally, we discovered together that he meant collateral estoppel. Have you made clear the desired result that you want? If you are particular about how the desired outcome is achieved, have you described the specifics of the process? Is the performance measurement clear? For simplicity, I’ll use a mundane example. If you tell the receptionist to answer all calls promptly, does he know what you mean by “promptly?” Does that mean as soon as he finishes talking to the current caller? Does it mean on the first ring or by the fourth ring?
- Does the employee know how to do it? If not, is there training, CLE, a book, a video, a form or another learning resource available? Continuing with our example, if the phone rings while the employee is talking to another caller, are you sure he knows how you want him to handle that? We lawyers seem particularly inclined to expect employees to already know what to do, or to learn by the “sink or swim” method. Perhaps that’s because many of us got tossed into the deep end without floaties in our first few years out of law school. Before you doom yet another person to learn by the trial and error method, however, think about what their learning errors and insecurities may cost you. The time and money you invest in training pays off with higher quality work product, greater efficiency and more client satisfaction. Although only you can provide the specifics of what you need and expect, some bar associations or independent companies offer training programs for law office staff that you may find helpful.
- Does the employee know why it is important? If you want the phone answered by the second ring, explain how that helps to foster an image of responsive service to clients, which gives the firm a competitive edge. Without explanation, it may appear to be an arbitrary, unreasonable and unnecessary requirement. When employees don’t understand the reason for something, they may assume it is not important and skimp on performance. Knowing how their role is important to the client and to their co-workers can give them pride in their work and a sense of being an essential member of the team. (If you don’t view them and treat them as essential team members, why were they hired?)
- Does the employee have all the tools he needs to do the job well? This can be a sore spot for law firms. Every year our budget for technology and equipment swells even larger. Equipment, however, is cheaper than manpower, and up to date equipment (and the requisite training to use it) allows us to get more done, or do a better job, with fewer people. For a simple example, if you can’t read the messages taken by your receptionist, does he have a good headset so that he can have his hands free to type the messages? Does he have the ability to give the caller the option to leave voicemail? Is your office using outdated software or computers that lack the RAM or processing speed to run today’s programs well? Ask your employees whether there are additional tools that would help them do a better job. You may be surprised at how they have been “making do.”
- Is there anything in the environment impeding peak performance from the employee? Some people are distracted by a noisy environment or have difficulty dealing with interruptions. Some get headaches or can’t see well in fluorescent lights. Some are too short to reach high shelves, or can’t bend over easily to reach low ones. Often desk chairs are not ergonomically suited to the sitter, causing bodily discomforts. Some lawyers use their speaker phone a lot and the person in the next office hears everything they say all day. Some people don’t get along well with the person seated next to them. In our example, if the copier is near the phone, perhaps the receptionist has trouble hearing the callers. Just ask.
- Can the job be restructured to better fit the strengths of the employee? Do you have the right people in the right jobs? If you have a brilliant strategist whose work looks sloppy due to typos, can she be teamed up with someone with an eye for detail? If someone has a tendency to chat too much, perhaps he would be perfect using those social skills in a client relations position. Are you asking someone who would prefer to work alone doing research and analysis to play a role that requires frequent interaction with others, while someone who loves teamwork feels isolated stuck in front of a computer all day?
In short, before terminating a poorly performing employee, consider trying to save the investment you have in them by substituting curiosity and questions for your assumptions. These are the easy questions. Next month we’ll take a more in-depth look at how your own behavior may cause the performance problems you experience.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.