What Do I Do With A Good Employee Whose Performance Is Deteriorating? Ask Madeleine

Declining or Deteriorating PerformanceDear Madeleine,

I have an excellent employee who has been working for me for over three years. She has always had a good attitude and she meets her deadlines, turns out reliable work product, and gets along with others—truly a model employee. 

The problems started about four months ago when she started coming in late, leaving early, missing deadlines, and making excuses.  I have been cutting her a lot of slack because she has always been so great, but now her peers are coming to me with complaints and I need to do something. I don’t want to hurt her feelings or make things worse by de-motivating her. I don’t know where to start. – Cutting Slack 

Dear Cutting Slack,

This is a classic situation—and boy, is it tough. When excellent employees like this one start letting you down, it is almost always because of something going on in their personal life. It could be a health problem or some kind of big transition involving herself or someone close to her, or serious money trouble. Sometimes there is a mental health or addiction problem at play that might cause your employee to be secretive because of embarrassment. The usual instinct for a great employee is to buckle down and try to tough it out without making a big deal of it at work, which is often not realistic or sustainable. If your employee is a very private person it will be even harder for her to talk about what is going on, even without sharing details.

Your big job is to not let this situation go on—especially since others have noticed. You must confront her, gently and kindly, with the truth. And HR needs to get involved, for several reasons. You have to document what has been going on so that you have a reasonable and objective record. When your people are going through tough times it’s really easy to cut them a break for a little while, but over the long term you may be left holding the bag. So after you understand the situation, set up a timeline for getting back to normal and create a contingency plan in case getting back to normal is not an option. Your employee may benefit from EAP offerings, or she may need some kind of compassionate or long-term unpaid leave.

I know it will feel like you’re kicking her when she is down, but most workplaces are set up to require 100 percent from each person. It is ultimately unfair to you and your team members to let someone underperform too long for any reason. If your employee really does have a big problem, you can organize your team to support her outside of work by setting up a meal delivery schedule, for example.

Don’t delay, Cutting Slack. Deal with this situation with compassion and care—but deal with it head on.

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

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