Making the Tough Calls

Supervising a Troubled Employee
by Libby Smith
Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery

True or false: What an employee does on his/her own time, away from the job, is not a supervisor’s concern. True, unless and until those after-hours behaviors begin to have an impact on his/her job at the workplace. At that point, the supervisor has an obligation to intervene.

The supervisor has, as his/her first priority, a responsibility to the employer to ensure his/her employees are performing at the height of their capabilities. When performance is not meeting expectations, the supervisor addresses the performance issues, not what he/she has heard about behavior outside of work. For many supervisors, having to reprimand or take action against an employee produces more anxiety than any of their other responsibilities. However, examining an employee’s non-performance issues can lead to enormous benefits.

When concerns outside of work are affecting an employee, many signs may show up on the job: poor attendance, poor relationships with co-workers, chronic tardiness, vague complaints of not feeling well, missed deadlines, lowered productivity or change in the quality of work done. As a supervisor, especially in a small business, you may also have heard rumors of family problems or other stressors—you may have even smelled alcohol on an employee’s breath. Knowing when and how to intervene with an employee experiencing on-the-job difficulties is a crucial supervisory skill.

Does a supervisor need to know the details or circumstances contributing to the lack of performance at work? Absolutely not. When a supervisor is intervening with an employee because of a performance problem, it is about just that—a performance issue. The crucial part of the intervention for the supervisor is to remember whose problem it is. There are five steps to follow when intervening with an employee whose job performance is not meeting expectations:

  1. Observe. Identify job performance issues that need to be addressed (attendance, productivity, etc.)
  2. Document. Write down what you have observed (employee has used 17 sick days in the past month, and seven of those were no-call/no-show)
  3. Intervene. Discuss the job performance problems with the employee and state what your expectations are (“I need you to call in each time you will not be able to work your assigned hours, and a doctor’s note must accompany absences of more than two days in a row.”)
  4. Offer. Tell the employee there are supportive services available to him/her (You are not looking for details here, just letting the employee know what his/her options are.)
  5. Follow up. Set a date to review job performance to ensure the standards are being met. (“Let’s talk again in three weeks to see how things are going here at work.”)

It is advisable for the supervisor to consult with the human resources department, if available, any time job performance issues are being discussed. A human resources representative will be able to guide the supervisor through documentation questions and any other questions he/she may have. Also, when offering information regarding supportive services available to the employee, be sure to make the distinction as to whether or not seeking these services is voluntary or a mandatory condition of continued employment.

As a supervisor meeting with an employee to discuss job performance issues, it is important to remember the following three things:

  1. Maintain control of the conversation. Don’t let the employee enter into a long, drawn-out explanation as to why his/her performance is lacking.
  2. Be clear and firm. Explain company policy regarding performance, attendance, etc.
  3. Be supportive, but avoid emotional involvement. Offer help and identify resources for personal problems.

As a supervisor, you may be called on to intervene with a troubled employee; being prepared to do so by having a plan of action will greatly reduce any anxiety the meeting produces. Intervening with a troubled employee can set in motion the kind of change that can have a dramatic, long-lasting and positive impact on the employee and the workplace. IBI

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