You have been newly hired into you supervisory role. You have six direct reports. Three have worked for the University less than five years; the other three have more than ten years in the department. Overall, you have been impressed with the staff’s dedication to serving the department’s administrative needs and responding to requests from professors and students. However, you have observed that one of the long time staff members, Marie, seems to take a long time with any of her assignments and is avoided by most of the students and professors requesting services. Her behavior strikes you as unwelcoming and you have overheard her raise her voice a few times. When you bring up the issue with your boss, Noah, he says Marie gets the job done and is known for being hard to work with. This has been a long standing issue and the last supervisor did little to change the situation. Noah is also new to his role and wants to have a high performing office. Noah wants you to address Marie’s behavior.
Take a few moments to think about the situation and make some notes. What would you do? What would be your first step?
- Ask Marie to come in to your office and tell her enough is enough; she needs to change now or start looking for another position.
- Call a meeting. Tell all staff that Noah has high expectations of the office. Outline what you now expect of them.
- Wait and see if anyone else in the office comes to you with concerns about Marie.
- Investigate Marie’s past and current behavior, documenting problematic behaviors, then sit down with Marie one-on-one, to address her performance.
Possible outcomes for #1, Ask Marie to come in to your office and tell her enough is enough; she needs to change now or start looking for another position
- Marie is shocked; she has no idea about what you are talking about. It is possible that no one has given Marie real feedback in a way that helped her see her behavior as a problem.
- Marie gets very upset and feels singled out. You chose a heavy-handed first response. Though it may feel like the right thing to do, given that the concerns are long standing, this is the first time you are addressing the issue. Marie might accuse you of creating a hostile work environment or feel she is being discriminated against. When staff feel they are being treated unfairly or that different rules are being applied for different staff, they have a variety of options. In addition to approaching you directly, they could go to your boss, the Ombuds Office, their union, and EOD. What if Marie is the only woman reporting to you and she can document the fact that she is being treated differently? The issue could be become a much bigger concern. Is Marie treated differently in the office for any reasons other than her performance? Sometimes, when someone is labeled "bad" other staff and supervisors see only that, which might lead staff to avoid and isolate Marie.
- Marie contacts the Ombuds Office for support. The Ombuds Office is available for consultations for employees and supervisors. There is nothing wrong with Marie going to the Ombuds office; sometimes third party involvement can help move an issue forward.
For a first response, this is too much, too soon. You need to get a good understanding of Marie’s performance-related behaviors and spend sometime documenting what you see, what others may be saying, and looking at past performance reviews. Also, assume the positive when addressing an issue for the first time; it might be that no one in the office has ever talked to the person directly about the issue. You should not assume that Marie knows that there is a problem.
Please keep exploring other options.
Possible outcomes for #2, Call a meeting. Tell all staff that Noah has high expectations of the office. Outline what you now expect of them
- Staff are clear about what you and Noah expect of them. This might be a good place to start, but does not address Marie's specific performance issues.
- Marie feels that she is already meeting expectations. If Marie doesn't see a problem with her performance why change?
- Staff feel upset and wonder what is wrong with their performance. When communicating with staff about expectations, it is important to recognize what staff are doing well and understand their expectations and perspectives on their performance.
It is important to be clear with staff about your expectations you have and what the message is coming from above you. How you deliver this information is as important as what you say. An open conversation about expectations and the best way to meet them, rather than an announcement that every one needs to get on board, will better help staff to work towards meeting the expectations. Once you have been clear on the overall office expectations, you will still need to address the individual performance issues with Marie.
If you selected #2, not bad, but you have not directly addressed the issue. Please keep exploring other options.
Possible outcomes for #3, Wait and see if anyone else in the office comes to you with concerns about Marie
- No one comes to you with any concerns. Staff may have adapted to Marie and believe she cannot behave differently. Staff might be waiting to see what you will do. Staff might not see Marie's performance as a problem.
- Noah wonders why you are not working with Marie on her job performance. Noah let you know that he wants to see a change and that he wants to be kept informed about your actions. He wants to know why you have not taken action on the issue.
Waiting is not always a bad idea; however, waiting for others to alert you of problems that you already know exist is not recommended. Be proactive; try to find out what is really going on and how serious the problem is.
Please keep exploring other options.
Possible outcomes for #4, Investigate Marie’s past and current behavior, documenting problematic behaviors, then sit down with Marie one-on-one, to address her performance
- Marie gets upset. It is not unusual for someone to get upset when receiving constructive feedback about their job performance. Many of us identify personally with our jobs. And if we have not received much feedback, it can feel overwhelming at first.
- Marie has a union representative attend the meeting. If you have a staff meeting that involves disciplinary action, staff have the right to have a union representative present. Sometimes staff are nervous about meeting or do not trust supervisors, so they will want to have union presence. If, after explaining that this is not a disciplinary meeting, Marie insists on having union representation, it may be easier to start the process by having the union representative there. You still need to address the performance issues and this is not a reason to cancel the meeting. Also, if a union representative is not reasonably available, you do not have to delay the meeting.
- Marie does not see her behavior as problematic. Marie may not see a problem with her performance, particularly if this issue has not been addressed directly in the past. To move toward improvement, it is necessary to help Marie see that there is a problem. Marie may need more help than you can give her. There may be serious problems going on in her home that challenge her ability to be positive at work. Referring Marie to the FSAP may also help her examine how she can improve her behavior at work.
Collecting and documenting performance related information is vitally important before you sit down and have a discussion with an employee. It is important to have a good grasp of the facts involved. Is there really a problem or is this a one time occurrence? This will give you information on the seriousness of the issue and help you to be clear with the employee on what the issue is and in getting them to acknowledge there is a problem. Then, sit down with the employee and explore the issue at hand. There are support services to help both of you think about how to approach the situation; this may be a good time to utilize them.
Good choice. What might have happened if you had chosen one of the other options?