Keep a Non-Performing Employee Focused on Action

Help your employees be productive, even when they're your friend.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #13

Dennis called in with a provocative question:

This is Dennis from Savanah. I'm having trouble with an employee of mine who also happens to be a friend. He's very unorganized, he's very unproductive...I have to check behind him to make sure things are getting done...What can I do to make sure that the work that he's responsible for gets done and gets done timely? ... I've tried micromanaging him, I've tried getting upset with him, I've tried letting him do his own schedule, and nothing just seems to work. Any advice you could give me on how to get him to be more productive without me losing any more of my hair would be very beneficial.

Wow! You want that in one, 6-minute podcast? Ok. Here we go.

I have three quick and dirty tips. First, shave your head so if you do lose your hair, no one will notice. Second, you manage outcomes, let your employee manage process. Keep him focused with a daily check-in. His job is doing. Your job is clearing obstacles for him. Give him responsibility for the consequences if he misses a goal. Third, get clear about your role: decide if you're friend, first, or manager. Then act like it.

Set Clear Expectations and Make Sure Your Employee Understands Them

Sometimes, lack of progress doesn't come from incompetence, it comes from unclear expectations. I once had a boss who clearly told us what he wanted in our weekly team meetings. Or so we thought. It seemed clear when he was in the room, but within five minutes of his leaving, we'd be confused. We'd look around sheepishly and say, "I kinda think he wants... er, well, maybe he wants ... um... do you know what he wants?" His charisma--which was wonderful--actually blinded us to noticing we weren't in sync.

Make sure your employee knows what you expect by asking him to describe it back to you. Just because you know doesn't mean he knows. If he thinks a focus group is a support group for eye doctors, he won't give you results when you make him Chief Marketing Officer. "What to expect" also includes the quality level. A presentation scribbled on a napkin might be good enough. Or maybe you want it bound in yarn with a Hello Kitty aluminum cover on scented paper. If that's you--and I'm not saying it is--show him a sample.

Lastly, agree on a due date that he believes is doable. Otherwise, he may just decide it's all unrealistic and mentally check out early.

Put It in Writing and Check In Daily

Once you have agreement, write it down: deliverable, quality level, and due date. Do this for everything he's responsible for, then write down the agreements and staple them to his forehead. Don't use scotch tape; it comes off in the shower.

A daily review of goals, deliverables, and deadlines keeps things moving forward for anyone you collaborate with, even when things are going fine.  They even work on YOU!

Now every day, do a brief--very brief--daily-check in. Walk through the list of outstanding goals (you wrote them down, remember?) and ask, "Are you working on this? Will you get it done on time?" The only acceptable answers are "Yes" or "No." No excuses or justifications. If he says "No," your third question is "How can I help?" No blame, no judgment. Just offer your help. This should be a 3-10 minute conversation at the very most.

The day his answer to "Will you get it done on time?" switches from "yes" to "no," you ask what happened to cause the delay and whether it could have been discovered sooner. Then his job is improving the process so it doesn't happen again.

What to Do if He Doesn't Improve

The Big Event happens on the due date. If he gets it done, well, break out the Suzie Q's and Cool Whip, and start celebrating.

If he doesn't deliver, however, have him choose the consequences. "Dagmar, here's the deliverable you committed to. We checked in daily, and you missed the deadline. What should the consequences be?"  It's a tough choice, but it's his tough choice. If he fails multiple times with clearly defined, written goals, it's your turn to make a tough choice.  Take responsibility and lay it on the line. "Dagmar, you've missed three deadlines you committed to. I pay you to produce results and there's a pattern of you not producing. I've done my part: I've paid your salary and laid out the goals. You haven't done yours. What do we do next?" If you want to give him a hint, you might suggest a choice between being laid off and accepting unemployment, or quitting, to save his self-esteem.

Make These Practices Universal to Meet Your Own Deadlines

You can use this framework--deliverable, quality, and due date--for anyone you collaborate with, even yourself, and even when things are going fine. A daily review of your goals, deliverables, and deadlines can keep things moving forward. If you use it with your snuggle-bunny and children, though, skip the part about firing them when they don't deliver. Instead, hug them and tell them you love them with all your heart. Trust me. That's one big difference between family and work. Family is about love, business is about getting results.

Know When to Say "Enough!"

Which leads me to tip #2: choose friendship or business. You're putting up with a non-performer because he's a friend. Be honest with yourself, Dennis: you're giving a friend a handout and letting him hang around the office so you can both fool yourselves into believing he doing work for you. Why not save yourself the headache and him the self-delusion? Send him home and keep paying him, as a gift. At least then, you're both being honest about the situation.

If, however, you're serious about your business, treat this as business. You're giving him money in exchange for results. Help him succeed by checking in daily on deliverables, quality levels, and due dates. You'll both know immediately if he's missing deadlines, and put responsibility squarely on his head. If he isn't giving you what you want, however, then it's a failed experiment and now it's your turn to step up and call it quits.

... and people wonder why I'm self-employed!

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.