How to Spot Em­ploy­ees Who Are Be­gin­ning to Strug­gle – And What to Do About It

Trillions - - Contents - By Dr. Chance T. Ea­ton

I can eas­ily say that one of the biggest chal­lenges of man­ag­ing and lead­ing em­ploy­ees is iden­ti­fy­ing and work­ing with those who are strug­gling in their job. When not rec­og­nized and, more im­por­tantly, not dealt with, em­ploy­ees who are not meet­ing the min­i­mum work ex­pec­ta­tions can have dam­ag­ing ef­fects on a com­pany. These may in­clude un­ac­cept­able prod­uct/ser­vice qual­ity; dis­tress shared with other em­ploy­ees, re­sult­ing in lower morale; and co-work­ers having to pick up the low per­former’s slack. So it is crit­i­cal that man­agers rec­og­nize the warn­ing signs of strug­gling em­ploy­ees.

Most of the time, a strug­gling em­ployee will dis­play their dis­tress through no­tice­able shifts in be­hav­ior (ob­serv­able ac­tions) or at­ti­tude (tem­po­rary states of thought and feel­ing). When an em­ployee is be­gin­ning to strug­gle in their job, man­agers need to fo­cus their at­ten­tion on work be­hav­iors seen in (1) job du­ties, (2) com­pe­ten­cies and (3) con­duct is­sues.

Warn­ing Signs

First, let’s talk about job du­ties. This is the “what” of the job: what the em­ployee is paid to do. When an em- ployee has been per­form­ing the “what” of their job at a level of ex­pec­ta­tion but they are be­gin­ning to miss ex­pected work quo­tas and lev­els of ex­pected per­for­mance, they are sig­nal­ing to you that some­thing is off. I once had an em­ployee who started mak­ing mis­takes that were sig­nif­i­cant enough that they trig­gered for­mal dis­ci­plinary ac­tion. They were a tenured em­ployee that was well re­spected for do­ing qual­ity work, but sud­denly their work prod­uct be­came sloppy. Af­ter a long dis­cus­sion, the em­ployee dis­closed to me that they were ab­so­lutely burned out from the job and needed a ca­reer change. This of course trans­lated into more dis­cus­sions, but the point is that change in abil­ity to per­form their job func­tion is al­ways a sign that an em­ployee is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some prob­lems. If the prob­lems go un­ad­dressed, the com­pany can suf­fer in a va­ri­ety of ways.

The sec­ond be­hav­ior to watch for is no­tice­able shifts in com­pe­tency per­for­mance. Com­pe­ten­cies are the knowl­edge, skill and abil­ity to do the work; they are the “how” of the job: how the work gets done. I’ve worked for mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies that rate job per­for­mance on com­pe­ten­cies and have had nice rat­ing scales to help rate lev­els of com­pe­tency per­for-

mance. Work com­pe­ten­cies may in­clude cus­tomer ser­vice, ini­tia­tive, ac­count­abil­ity, team­work, job knowl­edge, plan­ning and or­ga­niz­ing, lead­er­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If an em­ployee ap­pears to be meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions for their job du­ties but, for ex­am­ple, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion is be­gin­ning to not meet ex­pec­ta­tions, we should be on the alert that the em­ployee may be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some chal­lenges. Though com­mu­ni­ca­tion may seem like a qual­i­ta­tive and vague as­pect of work, it re­ally isn’t. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is about ex­press­ing ideas clearly and con­cisely and en­cour­ag­ing two-way in­ter­ac­tions with a bal­ance of lis­ten­ing and speak­ing. Take an em­ployee who nor­mally keeps oth­ers in­formed, main­tains an open flow of di­a­logue across de­part­ments and is both diplo­matic and ar­tic­u­late when they speak. This would be con­sid­ered meet­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­pec­ta­tions. Then you no­tice a shift in their com­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pe­tency be­hav­ior; their per­sonal agen­das be­gin to in­ter­fere with open com­mu­ni­ca­tion, they are un­will­ing to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with the team and re­sort to tri­an­gu­lat­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and they have trou­ble main­tain­ing pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships. This should sig­nal to you that the em­ployee is dis­play­ing their dis­tress in “how” they do their job.

The third fac­tor to look for is ba­sic chal­lenges to poli­cies and pro­ce­dures, of­ten re­ferred to as con­duct is­sues. These aren’t “can’t” is­sues; they are “won’t” is­sues. Con­duct is­sues may in­clude not ad­her­ing to the work sched­ule (e.g., com­ing in late, leav­ing early or tak­ing longer than al­lowed breaks), dress code in­frac­tions, com­pany theft, etc. These are backed by com­pany-rec­og­nized poli­cies and pro­ce­dures, and in­frac­tions should be warn­ing signs that an em­ployee is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing prob­lems and may pose fu­ture risk.

Ear­lier I men­tioned that a strug­gling em­ployee will also dis­play their dis­tress through no­tice­able shifts in at­ti­tude (tem­po­rary states of thought and feel­ing). From a work per­spec­tive, at­ti­tudes are dif­fi­cult to ac­tu­ally work with be­cause they can be very sub­jec­tive in na­ture. These tem­po­rary states of thought or feel­ing can be seen in a lack of mo­ti­va­tion, fa­tigue, a loss of fo­cus, lost emo­tional con­nec­tion and an over­all di­min­ished well-be­ing. None of these can be used to doc­u­ment poor per­for­mance be­cause they are sub­jec­tive and open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. They can, and prob­a­bly should, be­come part of the conversation with a strug­gling em­ployee but should never be doc­u­mented as a per­for­mance is­sue.

In sum­mary, great man­agers are closely watch­ing for no­tice­able shifts in (1) job du­ties (the “what”) that were once met but are now fall­ing be­low min­i­mum ex­pec­ta­tions, (2) com­pe­ten­cies (the “how”) that were once met but are now fall­ing be­low min­i­mum ex­pec­ta­tions and (3) poli­cies and pro­ce­dures not be­ing ad­hered to. Re­mem­ber that a shift in at­ti­tude (a tem­po­rary state of thought and feel­ing) may be no­tice­able but is very sub­jec­tive and should be left out of any doc­u­men­ta­tion for per­for­mance im­prove­ment.

Why Warn­ing Signs Are Missed

It sounds rather ba­sic to no­tice when job du­ties, com­pe­ten­cies and con­duct is­sues are not meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions, but why do so many man­agers miss these warn­ing signs? One rea­son is that man­agers are not trained to see the sub­tle be­hav­iors that strug­gling em­ploy­ees of­ten dis­play. The rea­son for this is the over­sim­pli­fied be­lief that em­ploy­ees are ei­ther do­ing the work or not do­ing the work; there’s no recog­ni­tion for any­thing in be­tween.

I once worked with an ad­min­is­tra­tor that told their em­ploy­ees that when they en­tered the work­place, they were to turn on “work mode” and shut off “per­sonal mode” – like a light switch. Ob­vi­ously, when an em­ployee ac­cepts a job, they ba­si­cally en­ter into a con­tract where they do cer­tain work in re­turn for in­come and agree to this “on mode” ex­pec­ta­tion. I can tell you that the ad­min­is­tra­tor I am re­fer­ring to had no ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of hu­man be­hav­ior in the work­place, ob­vi­ously strug­gled to en­gage their teams and didn’t seem to care that much any­way.

So the ex­pec­ta­tion ap­pears sim­ple enough that when you show up for work, you are “on” and when you leave, you are al­lowed to be “off.” This sounds sim­ple enough but just isn’t al­ways the case. Most work be­hav­ior ex­ists on a con­tin­uum, and great man­agers are able to de­tect early on the warn­ing signs that an em­ployee is strug­gling through drops in meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of (1) job du­ties, (2) com­pe­ten­cies and (3) con­duct.

The real prob­lem is that many man­agers do not take the time to check in and have one-on-ones with their em­ploy­ees. One-on-ones are golden op­por­tu­ni­ties to talk about ex­pec­ta­tions as they re­late to job duty out­comes (the “what” of the work) and com­pe­ten­cies (the “how” of the work). They are also times to give feed­back on per­for­mance. If these meet­ings and check-ins do not take place, the man­ager doesn’t find out about the poor per­for­mance un­til it is too late. Then the man­ager moves into a re­ac­tive mode, putting out fires and not truly serv­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion as a whole.


It is one thing to no­tice shifts in work be­hav­ior, but I’m al­ways more in­ter­ested in the so­lu­tions. If you are doc­u­ment­ing cor­rectly and you note that there is a no­tice­able shift in per­for­mance, you start to lean on your pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pline and per­for­mance im­prove­ment poli­cies to ei­ther (1) coach the em­ployee in or (2) coach the em­ployee out. Rec­og­niz­ing that some­thing is off with an em­ployee but do­ing noth­ing about it is sim­ply the re­sult of a man­ager not do­ing what they are paid to do. The fol­low­ing are what I con­sider to be es­sen­tial skills for good man­agers.

Fre­quent check-ins. Man­agers are ul­ti­mately paid to help their team per­form at or above ex­pec­ta­tion in or­der to cre­ate eco­nomic value for a com­pany. Man­agers need to do mi­cro check-ins with their team mem­bers on a weekly ba­sis. This will in­crease the level of trust be­tween the man­ager and the em­ployee and pro­vide a pulse of the em­ployee’s sta­tus.

For­mal one-on-one per­for­mance coach­ing meet­ings. These are, in my opin­ion, the most valu­able tool to help em­ploy­ees per­form. They can range from 30 min­utes to an hour in length and should oc­cur, at a min­i­mum, once a month. All jobs are dif­fer­ent, and for those that are more com­plex, such meet­ings should be held more of­ten. If you don’t have time to per­form one-on-ones, your team is too big or you have larger or­ga­ni­za­tional is­sues that are pulling you in the wrong di­rec­tion. I sug­gest that em­ploy­ees come pre­pared to these meet­ings, ready to talk about their job du­ties and com­pe­ten­cies. In fact, I sug­gest that em­ploy­ees walk in having al­ready scored their per­for­mance us­ing some form of a Lik­ert Scale. They should score both job du­ties and com­pe­ten­cies based on ac­tual per­for­mance. Then, dur­ing the one-on-ones, the man­ager and em­ployee can di­a­logue about the “what” and “how” of the work. These scores can then trans­late into quar­terly, semi-an­nual or an­nual per­for­mance re­views. Now there is no ex­cuse to not see the warn­ing signs of an em­ployee that is be­gin­ning to strug­gle and, more im­por­tantly, help coach them into bet­ter per­for­mance.

Pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pline and per­for­mance im­prove­ment poli­cies.

Fi­nally, smart com­pa­nies have po­lices for pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pline and per­for­mance im­prove­ment that pro­vide a frame­work for how to get an em­ployee back on track or off your team. If the man­ager has done ev­ery­thing they can to help coach the em­ployee back on track but the em­ployee is still strug­gling, to­gether the man­ager and em­ployee craft a “sug­gested plan for im­prove- ment” out­lin­ing ex­actly what the em­ployee needs to do to meet the de­mands of the job, in­clud­ing how the man­ager will pro­vide feed­back on per­for­mance. If the em­ployee does not fol­low through, they will con­tinue to move down the pro­gres­sion steps to ter­mi­na­tion. When this is done cor­rectly, most em­ploy­ees will check out on their own if they are not up to the chal­lenge; this is re­ferred to as coach­ing an em­ployee out. Em­ploy­ees that are up to the chal­lenge will take the ini­tia­tive to fol­low through and get back on track; this is re­ferred to as coach­ing an em­ployee in.


Life is com­pli­cated, and work be­hav­ior is not as sim­ple as “on” or “off” per­for­mance. Work is not the cen­ter of our uni­verse, and peo­ple will nat­u­rally bring their per­sonal chal­lenges with them to work. It is the man­ager’s job to ob­serve per­for­mance, es­pe­cially when ex­pec­ta­tions are not be­ing met. It is also the man­ager’s job to cre­ate ac­tion plans for poor per­form­ers to ei­ther get on the bus or off. As I said ear­lier, work­ing with em­ploy­ees who are be­gin­ning to strug­gle in their job is one of the most chal­leng­ing tasks of a man­ager, but it is what they are be­ing paid to do. When it is done cor­rectly, man­agers can fo­cus their en­er­gies on the whole: cre­at­ing eco­nomic value for their or­ga­ni­za­tion by em­pow­er­ing, lib­er­at­ing and un­leash­ing their team’s tal­ent.

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