Problem Employee

Dear Management Doctor:

After a year plus of "making book" on _____, ______ and I completed his annual performance appraisal. It was very poor and we summarized his score with a "needs to make a commitment of professional improvement" (our euphemism for "below average" or "does not meet expectations").

We set a "closing date" for the review to assess the 12 prior months based on his anniversary date. During the few weeks prior to his anniversary date, we had a project assigned to him with which he was unable or unwilling to recognize a number of major issues-this created an incomplete report on deadline. Fortunately, we had an amenable applicant agreeing to a last minute continuance of her items for another month.

In preparing the evaluation, I wanted to check some dates related to this project. I pulled the project folder, and while skimming through the file, I found an email from another department that clarified a series of issues, but this had never been brought to my attention or covered in the staff report.

I was stunned by the omission of this information and I came to two conclusions: either he willfully withheld the data in order to create a problem with the project or a problem for me, or he was too incompetent to figure out this information was important.

Discussing and reviewing the evaluation with the City Attorney resulted in his belief that he could support and we could defend a demotion for the latter, and at least a suspension for the former, if there were solid proof. He does not believe that with his age and nearness to retirement, we could defend a termination. In his appraisal meeting, I told him that we learned of this error after the "closing date" for his appraisal, but that I was going to think about it while on vacation, but was seriously considering starting the process for a demotion. He stated he didn't think the information was important.

Here's what I am trying to balance. I have never faced this situation in my management experience.

He is 18 months from retirement, and we have no early retirement program. Even with a demotion, his retirement is based on his highest salary during the last 3 years, so a demotion does not affect retirement. The annual salary difference is about $4,000 between a II and a III.

I am leaning towards a six-month demotion with ongoing appraisals and a re-assessment of his performance to determine whether he should be reinstated as a Planner III. Much of his problem appears to be a lack of initiative and laziness in researching issues.

In your experience, does providing someone the standards to earn back their prior position work as an incentive? Or is it best to just bite the bullet and make the demotion permanent?

Frustrated Manager

Dear Frustrated Manager,

It may be that what you do on this one has less to do with the specific employee than it does with the rest of your staff. What I mean is, will they read this as positive or negative. Given his history and months to retirement, nothing you do is likely to have much good effect. You could burn up a lot of your own time on this with little pay back. I'd try to encourage an early retirement. If no success with this, try to isolate him and wait it out. If you demote, I'd make it permanent, given the 18 months. Why waste your time on this? Could you then use the Planner III for someone who deserves it?

Good luck on this.
The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I agree. Why waste time on this dud issue?

Bob Marak
Shreveport, LA

Well, this is going to be a different view of the situation noted above. I generally agree with the Management Doctor's advice given the information provided. But, how did management let it get to the point of having to consider demotion, temporary or other? It has been my experience that a staff member doesn't "suddenly" go bad. Managers have a responsibility to keep in contact with their staff throughout the year and observe staff behavior carefully.

In this situation, apparently two managers had been "making book" on this employee. Not sure what "making book" is, but it sounds suspiciously like an attitude toward the employee had been formed and the "making book" was to confirm problems, not solve them. During this year period, did management ever make an attempt to intervene? Was the employee bored with his/her current job, but had talents that could be used in other areas of the organization? Was this employee being written off because he/she is close to retirement and might be over the half-century mark?

Sorry, but I was disapppointed that the question posed to the Management Doctor didn't seem to indicate any sense of responsibility on management's part for this situation. I would have been much more comfortable with "cut your losses" response from the Management Doctor if I had known that previous steps to save an employee had been tried and were not successful because the employee did not want to be saved.

I've been working in the planning field for nearly 27 years, most of that time managing staff. I've had to fire a few staff, but precious few given the hundreds whom I have hired and managed. They were fired because they were not interested in meeting me part of the way and becoming useful members of the organization. I have tried to live by a statement a respected high school teacher I once knew made: "When considering what went wrong, one must first look at himself to identify what his contribution was to the problem."

Michael A. Harper, AICP
Planning Manager, Advanced Planning Program

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