How managers can fix employee ethics and productivity problems


Cliches are cliches because they are generally true. One cliche that is overused is one attributed to any number of famous people. Regardless of who said it, I believe it is a great leadership principle:

“Man has two ears and only one mouth. Therefore, we should listen twice as much as we speak.”

I’ve spent over 40 years managing people, and I can say this with confidence: when I have violate this principle I generally end up with a mess.

Several years ago I was approached by one of my leaders. He was having difficulty with another leader on the team, and he said, “I genuinely respect her as a leader, and I want to work more closely with her. The problem is that when we are working on a problem together she is far more interested in being understood than she is in understanding.”

That’s a big deal.

As I’ve mentioned in our other “10 ways…” blogs, ask your employees questions and listen to the answers.

Seriously. It’s that easy.

Here’s how I like to approach 10 hard conversations about ethics and productivity. These are all real situations I’ve had to confront with employees over the years. It’s rarely as simple as I thought it’d be, but that’s part of what I love about being a manager. People always surprise me. And when I help someone grow personally and professionally, we both win!

  1. My employee is consistently late for work
  2. My employee uses social media inappropriately
  3. My employee fudges their timesheet
  4. My employee takes too many personal calls
  5. My employee gossips and backstabs
  6. My employee takes on too much and doesn’t complete projects
  7. My employee lets others volunteer to do the work
  8. My employee blames others for workplace failures
  9. My employee consistently misses deadlines
  10. My employee doesn’t prioritize well

1. When one of my employees is consistently late for work…

Sure, everyone misses their alarm or gets stuck in traffic every once in a while. But if your employee can’t even make it on time to work for 1 week straight, you’ve got a problem.

Set up a private 1-on-1 meeting

First let me state the obvious. Public humiliation—during a meeting, at their cubicle, or in the break room—is not the answer here. Make sure you address the issue in private.

Next time they arrive late, tell them you’d like to talk with them 1-on-1 later in the day. Addressing their tardiness on a day they were on time could make them resentful, so make sure you do it as soon as possible after they arrive late.

If you’re anxious about discussing their tardiness, try buying them coffee or lunch. It’ll make them (and you!) more comfortable.

Ask why they’re habitually late

Once you’ve sat down with them and have their attention, get to the point. I wouldn’t waste too much time on small talk—it’ll feel like you’re stalling.

Here’s an example of how you could phrase the question:

“John, I’ve noticed that you’ve been coming into the office 30 to 60 minutes late 2 to 3 times a week. I noticed it about a month ago and hoped it’d go away, but since it’s continued, we need to talk about it. Can you please explain to me why you’ve been having a hard time getting to work on time?”

Some reasons they give could include:

  • “I keep getting stuck in traffic.”
  • “To spend more time with my family, I stay up later than I should.”
  • “My wife’s getting back to work since the kids are all in school now, so we’re splitting drop-off duty.”
  • “Some mornings, I’m extra sluggish, making everything take twice as long.”
  • “I didn’t think it mattered what time I came in, so sometimes I just hit snooze a couple extra times.”
  • “Well, I guess I didn’t realize I was late that often.”

Explain why their tardiness is an important issue

First, make sure they’re familiar with your company attendance policy. You might even spend 1 to 2 minutes reviewing it with them to make sure it’s fresh in their minds.If you don’t have a published policy, be clear about your expectations. By talking about it in-person, you add a layer of accountability.

Next, give them a firm number—especially if they’re salaried. Do they know that being late 10 minutes every day adds up to a week’s paid vacation by the end of the year? Showing them how much their tardiness is costing you could be the nudge they need. Who knows? All that missed work could be what’s keeping them from reaching their performance objectives.

Finally, explain the impact their tardiness has on their coworkers. Morale can plummet when coworkers see that your employee doesn’t care about timeliness. If it’s okay for them to be late, why can’t everyone be late? When more coworkers follow their example, productivity will suffer.

Here’s an example of what you could say to your employee:

“I know it might feel silly, but let’s take a minute to read over the company attendance policy. Why do we have guidelines like this? Sure, you’re still getting all your work done. But you’re falling behind on your bigger-picture objectives. Even being 10 minutes late every day adds up to a week’s worth of work by the end of the year. That’s a lot of time you could have been spending fulfilling your objectives. Finally, coming in late tells your coworkers that their time isn’t as important as yours. It discourages the kind of early-morning camaraderie we’ve created in our company culture.”

Agree on an official arrival time

There’s no way around it. Some of us aren’t morning people. (I’m not!) It’s possible your employee thought they were doing you a favor by arriving late. They didn’t want to spend 8 am to 10 am downing coffee and zoning out at their desk. So they’ve been coming in at 10 am and staying an extra 2 hours.

You have 2 options:

  1. Let them keep coming in late.
  2. Insist that they come in early and tired.

Let’s say they aren’t missing meetings or forcing coworkers to rearrange their schedules. Why not let your employee adjust their work schedule? Of course, if you make this kind of exception for 1 employee, be ready to make the exception for others as well. Try not to give anyone special treatment.

Then again, you may need your employee to be in by 8:30 am for a daily check-in meeting. If it won’t work to have them phone into the meeting, work with them to come up with a plan to get them into the office on time. Share your own tips for waking up in the morning. Having an outside person to hold them accountable could be the push they need.

How I actually handled it

Years ago, I had a graphic designer named Ronnie who fit a certain stereotype for me. Disheveled, disorganized, struggled to meet deadlines. I put him in the category of “problem employee who may never change.”

Boy, was I wrong.

At 11:30 pm one evening, I realized I left something at the office that I needed first thing in the morning. I lived about 2 minutes away, so off I went.

The lights were on.

I snaked my way through the office cubicles to Ronnie’s desk. There he was, diligently working on an important media project for me.

I said, “Wow, Ronnie! You’re really burning the almost midnight oil!”

He replied, “Well, actually, I’m here at this time almost every night.”

I couldn’t believe it.

He explained that he had a hard time concentrating in the office during the day. He was a natural night-owl. And the hustle and bustle of our open office distracted him.

Ronnie knew we had policies about office hours. So he’d try to come in at 9 am, try to get some work done, then hit it hard from 5:30 pm to midnight.

Oh boy! I had misjudged Ronnie big time. I was humbled.

But I was also concerned that Ronnie was going to burn out like a supernova. I immediately adjusted his schedule. I gave him about 3 hours of overlap with our team for face-to-face discussions. (This was before telecommuting was a thing.) And I relaxed our company’s “get here on time” policy.

Ronnie almost immediately became much more productive and happy!

The moral of the story?

Be observant and ask questions.

I wish I had spent less time frustrated with Ronnie and more time getting to know the reasons behind his behavior.

2. When one of my employees uses social media inappropriately while identifying with our company…

Social media is evolving faster than any of us imagined. Since the early 2000s, its changed not only our lives, but our culture as well.

It’s not going away.

How do we moderate how our employees represent our company in a medium that keeps changing in scope and purpose?

Create a clear and specific social media policy

It’s important to understand what you can and can’t regulate. If you have a social media policy, check to see if your employee is violating it.

While you’re at it, check your social media policy to make sure it’s clear and specific. Having a policy that’s too broad will only make the situation more confusing.

Remember: Just because you don’t like what someone posted doesn’t mean it’s necessary to address it organizationally.

Proceed with care

You have more rights for employees with social media accounts linked to your company.

For example…

If your employee has your company listed as their current employer, you don’t have loads of rights.

But if they’re interacting with customers from their personal profile, you have a different issue.

Users can delete their posts, so when you see something out of line, take a screen shot. Keep screenshots organized, adding notes about why you think each post was inappropriate.

As the issue becomes more serious, take a holistic look at your employee’s social media presence. Is their activity across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram consistently offensive? Are they always linked with your company?

When you’re sure your employee is violating your social media policy, sit down with them. Ask about their motivation in posting the material. Explain how the post reflects on your company.

Above all, make sure you’re clear about how you want your employee to proceed. Should they delete certain posts? Do they need to remove your company from their profile? Would you like them to write a retraction or apology for a particular post?

If the post affects the rest of your staff, you’ll almost definitely want to ask your employee to delete it. Culture is king, and this kind of activity can be poisonous.

Whatever actions you do or don’t take, be cautious. Social media and employee rights evolve with every new case. It wouldn’t hurt to seek legal counsel and find out what the latest court rulings have been.

How I actually handled it

We live in a culture of publishers. Years ago, only elite writers or people with a lot of money could publish their thoughts. Now, anyone with a phone can write anything they want. We live in a culture of “I have my rights to say whatever I want!”

Um, no.

Rich was a passionate guy. Whenever he was feeling the passion, he took to social media to express himself. One day, one of his more inflammatory (and divisive) posts popped up in my news feed.

I clicked on his profile and was stunned.

He was posting this type of thing regularly. And our company brand was prominently displayed on his page.

When I got together to discuss the issue with Rich, he got defensive.

“This is my personal page, and I want to express myself freely and let my friends know where I work.”

I explained that while he had the freedom to post whatever he wanted, we needed to clear up 2 things:

  1. Co-workers were part of his social media circle. What he was writing was having an effect on the way they viewed him. And his insensitive remarks were compromising his team’s unity.
  2. The company branding could NOT  be connected in any way, even at a distance, with his remarks. This was actually in a written company policy.

First, I suggested he refrain from engaging in this type of communication on a public platform.

Second, I demanded—not suggested—he remove our company’s branding from his social media profiles.

Rich balked, but I stood firm. I suggested that if he wouldn’t fulfill my request, he would need to find a new place to work.

Interestingly enough, it was my threat to fire him that actually switched on the light bulb!

He said, “Oh! It’s that serious? Wow…I’ll remove it immediately! Thanks so much for being so clear to me.”

Rich was one of those people who needed absolute black-and-white clarity. Once I figured out what he needed, the situation was easy to handle.

 3. When one of my employees fudges their time sheet…

This isn’t just a question of numbers, but of values.

Hopefully, you’ve outlined the consequences of lying on time sheets in your employee handbook. If you haven’t, put it on the list of things to do, and do it quickly.

Lying on time sheets is punishable in both civil and criminal court. Depending on what state you’re in, it could even be a form of larceny. At the very least, it’s solid grounds for termination.

Find out why they’re lying

Okay, so now that you know the legalities, you have a way to address the issue.

But before you fire them or take them to court, you should find out the story behind the numbers.

Let’s take a look at some reasons an employee may fudge their time sheet:

  • They’re logging time thinking about difficult issues. Does their production match their explanation? Ask them to log their time to reflect what they’re actually doing.
  • They’re rounding up instead of down. For hourly pay, you should have a policy about rounding up or down. So anything over bumps up to the nearest quarter hour—10:01 becomes 10:15. Or anything between 8 and 14 minutes over bumps up to the next quarter hour—10:08 becomes 10:15. So they’re purposefully waiting an extra minute to clock out to get a few extra bucks. It’s also possible they don’t even realize that the extra minutes are costing your company.
  • They’re carrying over overtime. They were slammed last week, so they had to work more overtime than usual. Instead of putting it on last week’s time sheet, they’re carrying it over to this week. They may have decided to do this on their own, or one of their superiors may have told them to. Either way, it’s illegal.
  • They don’t think you’re paying them enough. Let’s state the obvious: It doesn’t matter whether their feelings are legitimate here. Employees who feel they deserve a raise should bring it up to their superiors instead of scamming the extra pay out of the company. Still, listen to why they think they deserve a raise. Give them the honest reasons you can’t pay them more if you have to keep them at their current pay.
  • They don’t care. They’ve unplugged from their job. At this point, they’re seeing how much they can get out of you before you fire them.

If you uncover an issue rooted in lying, then you need to come up with a plan to get more details from the employee. As you move forward, make sure everything you’re documenting is objective.

Saying “They said they worked 8 hours, but it seemed like they only worked 7” isn’t good enough. Find a way to quantify the data—with time sheets, surveillance, or biometrics.

Find out if this is a culture issue

Did you know as many as 43% of hourly-paid employees exaggerate their hours? So there’s a good chance time sheet exaggeration is a problem at your company. You just haven’t realized it yet.

On an ethical level, it may be a sign that your company culture doesn’t value honesty. Make sure you train new employees on how important honesty is when they track their time.

How I actually handled it…

Jerry was a valuable member of our team. Unfortunately, he also had limited capacity. He was someone who needed “think time” to do good work.

So when our company switched to a detailed time-tracking application, he was in trouble.

How was he going to track his time spent staring into space?

I’m not a micro-manager, so it took me a few months to check my employees’ time sheets. After limited analysis (like 3o seconds), I noticed he frequently used a general category. His weeks came to exactly 40 hours, and that general category fluctuated up and down to get to that number.

Jerry and I had a great relationship. As I have mentioned before, this is key to dealing with difficult issues. Knowing how he operates, I asked him about his time sheet. I wanted to know if my assumption was right. Were his general category entries time he spent thinking?

They were. But they were also time he spent recovering. Sometimes, his job took so much out of him that he simply needed time to recover.

Clearly, Jerry was in the wrong position. He was producing excellent work, and I didn’t have a problem with his “think-time.” In fact, he was able to provide important insights because of the time he spent thinking. But because he was using a good chunk of time for recovery, I knew he’d be better somewhere else. It would be in his best interest to start looking at other options in our company that would be a better fit.

After some thought, Jerry completely changed careers. And his new career path is a far better fit!

The most important lesson I learned from Jerry was that knowing him was key to a good outcome… And that’s lesson #1 in most situations!

4. When one of my employees takes an excessive number of personal calls during the work day…

Realizing that an employee seems to be making personal calls all day is frustrating. You’re paying them to work, not to talk with their family and friends, right?

Their habits could be reducing their own productivity. Plus, they could also be disrupting their coworkers if they take the personal calls at their desk.

Review your personal call policy

Not filling your work day with personal calls might seem like a no-brainer. But if you don’t have a policy, you shouldn’t expect your employees to know what’s okay and what isn’t. This is especially true for new employees. After all, it’s likely their last employer had a different policy on handling personal calls at work.

Do your employees know if it’s appropriate to…

  • Answer all personal phone calls?
  • Talk at their desk?
  • Give their office phone number to friends and family?
  • Initiate personal phone calls?

These are the types of questions your personal phone calls policy should address. If it’s an issue with many employees, your policy is too vague. Be as specific as possible—give it a number if you must. Without a clear definition of what is and isn’t allowed, this can spiral into a battle of he said/she said.

Explain why it’s a problem

As soon as you decide that it’s a problem, set aside some 1-on-1 time to discuss it. Use specific examples to illustrate why these personal calls are an issue. Make it clear exactly why it’s a problem.

Are they…

  • Taking way too many calls?
  • Not getting everything done that they need to?
  • Producing lower quality work?
  • Distracting their coworkers?
  • Impacting office morale?

For most employees, telling them it’s a problem won’t be enough to make them change. You need to help them understand why it’s a problem.

Find out why they’re making so many personal calls

I’ve found it helpful to handle this conversationally as opposed to making the meeting a confrontation. Remember rule #1 – ask questions.

Find out why they’ve been taking so many personal calls.

Do they…

  • Have an ongoing family emergency (like a dad with failing health or a child with cancer)?
  • Have a parent who doesn’t understand when it is and isn’t okay to call their work?
  • Not recognize it as a problem because they’re still getting all their work done?
  • Not care if it affects their performance because they’re leaving the company soon?

Agree on a policy moving forward

If you decide they can’t reduce the number of personal calls, set time frames for making calls. When can they make longer calls? When should they leave their desk so they aren’t distracting coworkers?

If they’re comfortable with it, encourage them to keep their coworkers in the loop. A little context can go a long way. It’ll help their coworkers not be discouraged by what seems to be a waste of your employee’s time.

Also, discuss how you’ll keep in touch about their emergency. Will it resolve in a few weeks, a few months, or is there no end in sight?

You might use a similar strategy for a bored employee. Let them know, with specificity, exactly when and how long calls can take place.

I’d also suggest asking them to step in on another project so they’re less bored. When your employee takes too many personal calls because they have nothing better to do, you need to step up. Be a better manager. Help your employee make better use of their time.

How I actually handled it

Geoff was a talker. His wife was a talker. They had three young kids.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out how many calls he was getting!

Geoff would get between 5 and 15 calls a day from his wife.

I’m not exaggerating.

Apparently, she needed to talk with him about everything. From disciplinary issues with their kids to dinner plans, everything warranted a call.

Because Geoff’s job already had him on the phone a lot, I didn’t notice the problem myself. It was only after one of his coworkers brought it up that I realized it was an issue.

When Geoff and I got together, I asked whether he was aware of the issue.

Surprisingly, he was.

And while he enjoyed talking with his wife, he knew their frequent calls were eating into his productivity.

Geoff wasn’t the kind of guy that could have said, “Please stop calling me at work” to his wife. So I decided to be be the “bad guy” and proposed a plan. Unless there was a real emergency, he’d have 3 windows during the day when he could take a short call. I suggested he present this as a way to stay focused at work.

After talking with his wife, Geoff let me know that she understood and that he’d execute our plan. As it turned out, Geoff was grateful for the help in this area. He knew it was a problem, but didn’t know what to do.

In the end, Geoff was more productive. The plan provided some boundaries that helped him focus throughout the day.


5. When one of my employees gossips and backstabs…

The famous management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Anyone who has ever worked with other people knows it’s true.

The key to a great culture?

Well, it starts with trust. And nothing erodes trust faster than gossip and backstabbing.

Treat gossip severely and aggressively, the way you would treat cancer. Because it is. Gossip is cancerous to your business. Ignored, it will spread far and wide, destroying even your best employees.

See it for yourself


How do you know your employee gossips and backstabs?

Have you heard them make these comments firsthand, or did someone tell you about them? Ideally, you yourself will observe your employee gossiping before you talk with them.

One thing to consider is that the coworker who tells you about your employee’s gossiping could be the one gossiping. Manipulative employees will try to get their coworkers in trouble for something they never did. Especially if they know you don’t tolerate gossip.

Do everything you can—within reason, of course—to catch your employee in the act. If gossip is something they struggle with, it won’t be hard.

Document, document, document

For each instance you observe or hear about, make a note of what your employee said, who was present, and why their comment was inappropriate.

Was it…

  • Demeaning?
  • Untrue?
  • A breach of confidentiality?
  • Malicious?

Keep your notes organized and dated so you can refer to them on the fly.

Important: Don’t secretly record your employee and then play it back to them if they deny saying certain comments. Recording conversations without everyone’s consent is illegal in many states.

Confront your employee

Once you have gathered sufficient evidence that your employee is gossiping about their coworkers (or even about you!), speak with them 1-on-1. As you do so, remember that asking questions is a better way to start than simply telling them what you’ve heard.

Remember: Gossiping and backstabbing are serious threats to your business.

Don’t mess around.

Don’t mince words.

Explain that this behavior is totally unacceptable and that you won’t tolerate it.

As with all sensitive issues, document your whole process. Then, if the behavior continues, the termination process will go smoother.

How I actually handled it

Years ago, I heard a story that outlined why this is such a big issue:

A young monk went to his superior and confessed that he’d sinned by slandering his brother.

His superior said, “As your penance, I’d like you to place a small feather on the doorstep of every house in our village. When you’re done, please report back to me.”

The young monk did as he was told.

When he reported back, his superior said, “You have done well. Now, to complete your penance, go retrieve every feather.”

Retrieving the words we say, regardless of how remorseful we are, is impossible.

Ruth had a terrible habit of ripping into people she was struggling with. But instead of doing it in private with the person involved, she would vent to uninvolved people. This not only eroded the reputation of the person she was slandering, but it also hurt the trust others had in her.

After all, what was she saying behind MY back?

When I met with Ruth, she was defensive. Ironically, she was upset that others had shared with me what she’d said.

Still, I explained how gossip is cancerous to small teams. I encouraged her to use her considerable gifts to encourage the team and be a peace maker, not a peace breaker.

I started meeting with her more regularly. Then, she’d voice any concerns she was having. Plus, I would give feedback on any growth (or decline) on her part.

I can’t say that I saw a complete metamorphosis in Ruth, but I did see growth. I learned I need to deal with gossip quickly and decisively. And ongoing follow-up was necessary to ensure some accountability.

After some hard work and lots of accountability, we definitely had a healthier team!

6. When one of my employees takes on too many projects, ensuring they can’t complete any of them on time…

We as managers have to find a balance when it comes to teamwork. We want to foster collaboration among our employees, but we don’t want to encourage it to the point that our employees abandon their own tasks to they can work on that fun project everyone else is in on.

Have you noticed an employee falling behind because they have too much on their plate? (Not because they’re not working hard enough.) It’s time to sit down with them and help them brainstorm how to prioritize more effectively.

Find out why they have so many projects

They’re the go-to

Is your employee the go-to person for a certain manager, coworker, or topic?

Unable to say “no,” they find themselves failing to complete everyone’s requests. While it’s great to have subject matter experts and employees who deliver, you need to spread out responsibilities.

Some of your employees have untapped knowledge because someone else became the go-to. Just because Jerry knows loads about SEO doesn’t mean Clay doesn’t. Tap into the talents of others where you can!

Ask everyone to step up every once in a while instead of asking a single employee to step up constantly.

They’re hyper-responsible

Some people can’t stand to see others fail. They feel guilty for not stepping in because they could have or should have helped. When they see a coworker struggling with a project or deadline, they step in—often unasked—and help out.

This kind of behavior can build camaraderie and improve office culture. But it’s easy to go overboard. Too much of it means your hyper-responsible employee will stop completing their own projects because they’re too busy taking over others’ projects.

They have a hero complex

Employees with a hero complex like to step in when situations feel impossible. Sadly, they have trouble recognizing when their help isn’t needed or wanted. To foster the idea that they’re irreplaceable, they insert themselves into as many different projects as possible.

A great way to find an employee with a hero complex is to see how much they unplug on vacation.

Sure, it’s okay to read a few emails to stay up-to-date on progress made. But red flags fly when they start hitting “reply.” By replying to emails when they’re on vacation, they’re saying, “I’m the only person competent enough to handle the situation.”

There are certain situations where, perhaps, this is the reality. But usually, they’re one of many who can handle the issue.

But their hero complex insists they hit “reply” and make it look like they’re saving the day once again. Even when they’re away from the office, they can’t resist the urge to assert their superiority.

Redefine their responsibilities

Once you’ve determined how and why your employee has managed to have too many projects, meet with them 1-on-1. Ask them to come prepared to talk about what their responsibilities should be.

During the meeting, you can compare notes. Is there a glaring difference between what you both think their priorities should be? Make sure to give specific examples of times they took on too much and failed to deliver on their own projects.

Don’t be afraid to be the “bad guy” by letting your employee know you’re going to act as their gatekeeper for a bit. It’ll likely be a relief for them, at least until they figure out how to prioritize their projects.

Clearly define the scope of their responsibilities and what they can or can’t respond to.

If someone else asks them to do something out of scope, have them say, “My manager said I can’t take on more projects without her approval. Please talk with her.”

How I actually handled it

Sandy was the period on the end of every sentence.

  • “Who can work through this customer issue?” Sandy.
  • “Who can deal with the phone system problem? Sandy.
  • “Who can put together the company picnic?” Sandy.
  • “Who is qualified to do everything in our organization?” Sandy.

Whenever any issue stumped anyone, she’s the one they turned to. And not only did they consult Sandy, they often gave her responsibilities to actually do the work. 

You see, at one time or another, Sandy had done everything in our organization. 

But it didn’t take long for Sandy, one of our best and brightest, to start dropping balls. Which hurt her reputation and left her feeling like a failure.

When I met with Sandy, I expressed my deep gratitude for all she was doing in our company.

Then, I turned the conversation over to her. I asked, “How are you really doing?”

She told me what I already suspected—she was feeling overworked and like she wasn’t doing anything well. I asked her what she thought were the most important things on her to-do list. Not surprisingly she felt like everything on her list was important.

I decided to ask Sandy to meet weekly with me to discuss the upcoming week’s schedule. Each week, we ranked her tasks by priority. Every task got a deadline and estimate of the time it would take to complete it.

Occasionally, we talked about some of the tasks she used to feel responsible for. As a manager, I would make sure someone—not Sandy—was handling those things.

After a month or two, Sandy got the hang of it and began to get back to the “old Sandy” we knew and loved. Her productivity soared, and she felt much better about her performance…as did the whole team!

7. When one of my employees consistently lets others on the team volunteer to do the work

Remember when this staff member was new to the team? They probably came to work engaged and motivated to go above what you laid out for them.

But recently, they’ve been slacking off.

Apparently, they figured out that they can get by doing less, because every time they do, their coworkers step in and pick up their slack.

Define expectations

Clarity, clarity, clarity.

Office-wide clarity will help everyone do what they’re supposed to do.

Take some time to discuss and record the specific duties of each person on your team. When everyone knows who should do what, you’ll should avoid lazy and underperforming employees. At the very least, everyone will be on the same page.

Create a document with details about each person’s responsibilities.

Then, send it out into the world.

Or at least your office.

Remember clarity? Employees can reference the document when they need a quick reminder of what your expectations. Plus, it’ll be easy for them to find out who to ask specific questions.

Now, I know it’s not really possible to create something that covers every single thing each of your employees does. So your best bet is to do your best, and make it a living document. Ask your employees to update it themselves as they grow and refine their processes.

Discuss the ongoing problem

Even with the clearest expectations, there always seem to be employees who kick their responsibilities away to other people.

Meet with these underperformers and share your observations.

Here are some questions you might ask to get their perspective on things:

  • Do you feel unprepared to do this task?
  • Are there other projects you think are more important?
  • Do you feel someone else would do the work better?
  • Are you stuck and unsure how to proceed?
  • Is there something you need from someone to help you proceed?
  • Are there other projects you think you would do better on?

Help them understand that the team needs to balance the workload. Whatever the reason for their off-loading of responsibility, it negatively affects their coworkers.

And don’t afraid to own your part of the problem. It’s unlikely that it’s 100 percent their fault.

Decide on a solution

The reason they’ve been offloading responsibilities will inform how you move forward.

Here are a few possible solutions:

  • More accountability
  • A training course
  • Alter their job role
  • Move them to a different project
  • Team them up with a coworker

Before you end your first meeting, agree on specific deliverables. With a reasonable deadline. In writing.

Try to come up with a solution that puts as much responsibility on your employee as possible. Resist the urge to solve it all for them—even if you know exactly how to.

The goal here is to get your employee to step up.

Follow up

After you’ve come up with solutions, it’s time to make sure they’re committed to change. Check in with them weekly to track their progress. A face-to-face conversation will create added accountability. You can find out if they’ve run into any roadblocks they don’t know how to handle. And you can also offer praise on positive steps they’ve taken.

You’ll also want to update any coworkers who have brought up their underperformance. Let them know that you’re working with your employee to improve their performance. Encourage them to take up any ongoing issues with your employee before coming to you.

And if your employee doesn’t change, assign them to a different role, move them to a different department, or let them go.

How I actually handled it

There’s an old fable that goes something like this:

A pig and a chicken are walking down the road.

The chicken says, “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”

Pig replies, “Hm, maybe, what would we call it?”

Chicken responds, “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”

Pig thinks for a moment and says, “No thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.”

Jeremy was a classic example of this. He was happy to give input. (He was very insightful!) But when it came to committing to do the actual work, his name was rarely in the “assigned to” category.

This became a problem when others were very busy but Jeremy wasn’t. His coworkers resented his meager workload while they were killing themselves.

When I first met with him to discuss the issue, I wanted to find out if he noticed his teammates struggling.

He assured me that he did, but he just didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t lay back because he was lazy. Or incompetent. Jeremy laid back because he honestly thought every task should be done by the person who could do it best.

We all have hierarchical values. And above all else, Jeremy valued putting the best person on every part of a project.

I agreed that was ideal. But there were times when we had to fall back on the second or third best option to balance the workload of the team.

We took some time to look at the projects our team was working on. Together we looked for places where Jeremy had the talent and the drive to be a major contributor. Then, we followed up regularly to discuss both his performance and his perspective on how his work was going.

He grew to the point where there were even times when he raised his hand first to take on a new task. Now that was progress!

Jeremy’s confidence level grew. His teammates began to appreciate his efforts. And, eventually, the workload in our department balanced out. His growth was very important to the team!

8. When one of my employees blames others for workplace failures…

Why does it seem like some employees don’t own up to failure? Every time something goes wrong, they point the finger at someone else.

Instead of acknowledging how they could have prevented the failure, they shift focus. They distract you from their failure by pointing at others’ failures.

Do these sound familiar?

  • “If Jane had gotten me that report an hour earlier, this wouldn’t have happened…”
  • “Well, Bob never sent me that document, so I couldn’t complete the report…”
  • “You didn’t tell me that the deadline had changed in time…”

Yes? Keep reading for some concrete strategies to keep a culture of blame from taking over your team.

Investigate the claims

Is it possible that the offending employee is telling the truth and  that the failure was someone else’s fault?. Sure, it’s possible.

Before you criticize your employee for trying to blame someone else, do a brief investigation to see if they’re telling the truth.

  • Did one of their coworkers blindside them with new information at the last minute?
  • Were critical parts of the project that others completed incorrect?
  • Did the person responsible for quality control miss an error they should’ve caught?

Blaming your employee for something out of their control will only make them bitter toward you and less likely to stay engaged at work.

Say, “Let’s discuss what we CAN control”

When you’re ready to talk to your employee about their failure, keep this phrase on the tip of your tongue:

“Let’s discuss what we CAN control.”

Your employee will come prepared to throw every excuse they can think of to keep the heat off of them. Keep the meeting on track by repeating this phrase whenever they try to shift blame. You might want to use different words so it doesn’t sound robotic, but the point is the same…”Let’s keep the focus on what we can control.”

After a few tries, your employee will see that blaming others won’t work.

And even if something did come up that kept them from completing their project, this phrase helpfully redirects the conversation to help your employee grow. Sure, Joe in accounting sent that report a day late, but how could your employee have prepared for that? Did they stay in touch with Joe before the report was due, making sure Joe was on track? Did Joe know how long your employee needed the report before the project due date?

Find what prompted the blame game

Did you know that blame is contagious?

Let’s say your blame-shifting employee used to be a top performer.

Here are a few reasons, starting with you, that your top performer may have gotten into the bad habit of blaming others for their failures:

  1. They saw you do it. Your employees pay attention to how you conduct yourself at work. When something goes wrong in your department, do you blame someone else or take responsibility for it? When your employees see this, they think, “Well, if he shifts blame, why shouldn’t I?” Be honest with yourself and ask whether you might be a part of the problem.
  2. Their coworkers are getting away with it.  Blame is contagious. Have you been letting their coworkers get away with it? If so it’s not surprising to see the behavior from others. Don’t encourage them to stop taking responsibility for their failures.
  3. They’re insecure and afraid. Negative messaging around failure makes it natural for your star employee to doubt their value after particularly acute failures. Suffering from low self-worth, they try to shift the blame to someone else. How do you handle failure? Are you creating a culture of fear of a culture of learning from mistakes?

A great way to help your employee stop blaming others for their failure is to take some of the responsibility. And tell them about it.

Acknowledge your part in it

For example, here’s something you could say if number 3 above rings true:

“Jane, today I’d like to discuss a trend I’ve noticed where you miss deadlines and then blame others. Before we get into specifics and talk about how we can solve this, I have something I’d like to own up to. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I’ve realized that how I’ve handled your failures over the last 6 months may not have been helpful to you. In some ways, I’ve been setting you up for failure—and that’s my fault. I’m sorry for that. Even worse is that because of this string of what seemed like failures, I haven’t been as encouraging as I’d like to have been.

That’s going to change.

This is me taking responsibility for being ta part of the problem. This is me saying that you don’t need to be afraid of failure anymore. You’re one of my best employees. You have great ideas. Your passion for quality and consistency buoy the team to be more engaged and productive. You’re imperative to our success, and I’d hate to lose you because I haven’t been showing you your value enough. Moving forward, I’d like to focus on framing mistakes and failures in a more positive light. Let’s treat them as an opportunity for growth rather than as a waste of time or as a disappointment.”

As a manager, you can’t be afraid to accept responsibility for failure—even when it’s not all yours. Doing so discourages blame from building resentment and becoming a culture problem.

Create and agree on deliverables and deadlines

After discussing the real reason behind your employee’s failure, move forward with as much clarity as possible. Your goal should be to create face-to-face accountability that stems from a conversation. Do not just say, “Here’s what I need and when I need it. Go do it. Now.”

With every new project, explain what you see as their role in making the project successful. Also, explain others’ roles in the project to help them see the big picture and not only the specifics.

When you dive into specifics, keep these 2 things in mind:

  1. Don’t hold information back that you think they won’t need until later in the project.
  2. Do nail down specific dates for completion.

Then, open the floor to questions. Encourage them to push back on anything that feels unreasonable or too complicated.

Once they’re out of questions, ask them to repeat back to you what their plan is moving forward. What are their specific duties and the due dates for their deliverables?

Finally, end your meeting with a verbal agreement. Restate their duties and due dates. Agree that they’ll contact you any time they aren’t getting the support they need. By saying out loud that you agree to a plan, you create tangible accountability.

Here’s your goal: Leave no room for blame.

How I actually handled it

Sure, there are people who intentionally tear others down. But it’s been my experience that most habitual “blamers” are just incredibly insecure. Getting to the bottom of their fears is the first step to rehabilitating their behavior.

Jessica was a high performer with very high standards for herself and her team. Unfortunately, it was difficult for her to see how she contributed to failure…. It was always somebody else’s fault.

I tried a straightforward “here is where you messed up” approach.

It didn’t work.

So I sat down with her and asked for her opinion about the failure we experienced. I asked her to analyze the issues that led to the problems and to evaluate the performance of others on the team.

When she had laid everything on the table, I asked her how she felt like she might have done things differently.

It took a little prodding.

Sometimes, I asked about a specific part of the project where I knew she was most accountable. Eventually, Jessica was able to admit there were things she could have approached differently. A major victory.

Over time, this approach helped Jessica a lot. Because I asked her opinion, she felt valued as a major contributor. And because she knew I’d eventually ask about her part in the project, she came prepared with a thoughtful self-evaluation.

So what’s the bottom line?

Jessica’s insecurities meant I needed to let her say everything she was determined to say. It was only then that she could hear my questions and accept the feedback I offered.

9. When one of my employees is consistently missing deadlines

Let’s assume you spend time getting you and your employee on the same page for their projects right at the start. But then the due date rolls around. And there they are, telling you that they did the best they could and they’ll get it to you as soon as they can.

You feel like it’s partially your fault. Maybe if you had checked in more often on their status, they would have completed it on time. But how do you do that without coming off as a nag?

Find out why they’re missing deadlines

The are, of course, numerous reasons employees miss deadlines. If you really want to see a difference, you’ll find out the root cause and adapt your solution to it.

Let’s take a look at a few root causes and customized solutions for each.

They expand the scope of projects

What it means: Hyper-responsible employees often expand the scope of their projects. What starts as a simple deliverable grows to something much larger. (And something impossible to finish by their deadline!) Sure, they do it to better understand the concepts behind what they’re working on. But your employee needs to learn how to say no. They need to learn how to say, “This is interesting. But I think I’ll be able to finish my project without more exploration.”

Solution: Chat 1-on-1 with them. As their manager, it’s up to you to clearly explain their assignments in the context of how they work. Communicate the precise scope of their projects. If you can, point out some of the rabbit trails you think might tempt them and mark them as off-limits. And don’t forget to touch base with them to see if they’re staying on task. I keep it short and simple: “Please bring me up to speed on where you are now compared to last time we spoke.”

They’re a perfectionist

What it means: Perfectionists have a hard time letting go. Every time they return to a project, they find more things they’d like to tweak or remove or expand. Nothing ever feels done. And they hate handing in projects they know they could make better—the “if only they had more time” syndrome. So they ask for extensions when,  in reality, the project might be finished satisfactorily. They need to learn how to say, “This is good enough. If I need to improve it, I trust my manager to tell me so.”

Solution: Perfectionism is often rooted in both personality and dysfunction. It’s time to put on your patient coaching hat. Consider two handy ways you can help a perfectionist work faster: give them fewer steps and teach them when to stop. First things first, walk through their workflow and see if there’s room to streamline. Do they outline, dive in, then edit? Suggest that they just free write and then edit. Second, you need to help your employee understand what acceptable results look like. Obviously, this will depend on their task. If they’re engineering parts for the International Space Station, you need perfection. If it’s a rough draft of a departmental report, it doesn’t need to be perfect.

They misunderstand their responsibilities

What it means: It’s not all their fault. In fact, it’s mostly yours as the manager. Sure, you could blame them for not clarifying, but taking some responsibility is your best bet to getting your employee back on track. You need to learn how to say, “I thought we were on the same page, but I don’t think we actually were. That’s on me.”

Solution: Communicate work packages clearly. Do it both verbally and in writing so that your employees can reference them later. For everyone’s benefit, consider creating a Work Breakdown Structure for each project.

They’re burnt out

What it means: Your employee might quit soon.  When you notice that an employee has stopped caring about deadlines, the end is might be near. They’ve disengaged to the point that they’re not trying to hide it anymore. If you read between the lines, you’ll find that every excuse for a missed deadline is a cry for help. They wish they could say, “I don’t feel passionate about my job anymore.” Or, “I’ve failed too many times already. I might as well just wait it out.” Or, “I need a break. Combined with my personal life, this job is too stressful right now.”

Solution: Get face-to-face with them and ask them if they’re burnt out. Is there a chance they’ll say they’re not to save face? Absolutely. But there’s also a chance that you’ll catch them at just the right moment. They’ll say, “Yes, yes, I am.” And only then will you get to have an honest conversation about how you can redeem the situation. If they admit to being burnt out, praise them first. Build them up by reinforcing the value you see them bringing to the team and the company as a whole. Then, find out what they think would renew them—and do it if you can.

How I actually handled it

I was convinced that James wanted to meet deadlines…he just had no idea how to organize himself. What was true for James (and most of us) was that large goals and deadlines are unmanageable without intermediate steps.

As his manager, I was responsible for breaking James’ responsibilities into bite-sized chunks. Our company had started to use a business management framework called The 4 Disciplines of Execution.  One of the important concepts in the framework is the idea of lead and lag measures.

To simplify it, a lag measure is something like, “I want to lose 40 pounds in the next 6 months.” If you’re anything like me, 6 months would pass, I wouldn’t lose 40 pounds, and then I would wonder, “Why?”

Lead measures are the metrics you believe will help you reach your lag measure. In the example of losing 40 pounds, a lead measure would be, “Work out for at least 30 minutes 5 times per week.” A goal like this is easy to measure. And if it isn’t working, you can make changes in order to accomplish your ultimate lag measure.

James could only see the lag measure. And it was simply too big for him—he didn’t know what to do. So we broke his responsibilities into smaller pieces. We shortened his “check it off the list” timeframe and agreed on very specific, measurable goals. We were able to make mid-course corrections in his work.

James became much more productive. More importantly, he felt accomplished as he met deadlines and produced real work. Everybody benefitted from this exercise!

10. When one of my employees doesn’t prioritize well

Prioritizing well is a key leadership trait. Employees who want to move to management and beyond need to make it a priority to, well, learn to prioritize.

It’s never a good sign when one of your employees consistently does the easiest or most fun tasks first. Especially when it means their other projects suffer, either in timeliness or quality.

Examine any underlying issues

The whole point of having hard conversations with your employees is to find the underlying issues. Try to get to the bottom of the issue by asking questions.

“How are you really doing?”

That’s the first thing you want to ask your employee. Especially if they used to be able to prioritize well.

Is your employee struggling with a personal crisis? Are they feeling unappreciated or experiencing low motivation?

Once you know the root issue, you can help them deal with their personal crisis. Or make a point to be more affirming. Or help them feel more engaged.

Teach them how to take the reigns

What if there’s no underlying issue to your employee’s inability to prioritize? Their personal life is good, they feel appreciated, and they’re motivated every morning.

Now what?

Well, maybe your employee needs to learn how to take the reigns.

They’ve never been good at prioritizing. They have subpar time management skills, often procrastinating. When they have to choose between the more exciting or easy task and the task they don’t like, they never choose the latter. And that’s a problem.

Before your next 1-on-1 chat, write out how you’d prioritize their current assignments. Then, ask them to do the same. Spend some time comparing them. Discuss why you gave certain tasks a different priority than your employee did. Of course, let your employee explain why they prioritized their tasks differently.

Have meetings like this for however long it takes them to start prioritizing like you would. Oh, and make sure you hold them accountable to the list you agree on! It won’t do any good to have them able to prioritize on paper without following through!

Create hard deadlines

Another tactic to help them prioritize more effectively is to let them see you’re serious about deadlines.

In a face-to-face meeting, agree to a deadline for each task verbally and in writing. If you think it will help, outline the future consequences for letting projects slip off their radar.

While you’re at it, make sure there aren’t any obstacles slowing down your employee. Just because it seems like they’re only doing the easiest tasks doesn’t mean they are. Maybe they’re doing what they can (which happen to be the fun, easy things) while they wait for their coworkers to finish their part of the project.

Once your employee knows you’re serious about certain deadlines, they’ll be empowered. Then, they can insist their coworkers stop holding them up and get their pieces done on time, too.

How I actually handled it

Kaitlyn was an amazing employee in almost every way. She was smart, energetic, observant, organized, action-oriented. Yet between her periods of wild productivity, her priorities would get out of whack.

Because Kaitlyn was curious, she found her way into every nook and cranny of our company. And because she was so talented, she excelled in almost everything she did. Unfortunately, she made herself far too important in several areas of our company. Although she delivered more value than anyone else in the building, she wasn’t always delivering the right value.

I sat down with Kaitlyn and asked her to sketch out all her responsibilities….those I gave her and those she collected along the way. Then, I deleted things that others could do, that didn’t need to be done, or that could be put off for a time.

At first, Kaitlyn was uncomfortable with my plan. She asked, “Who’s going to do all this?”

My response? “Not you.”

She smiled, and we worked together to make sure all our bases were covered. Then, we took her shortened list of responsibilities and prioritized them with deadlines. Kaitlyn loved this. The most productive person in our company became even more effective and valuable!

In conclusion

A friend of mine coined this great phrase:

Anything you can see with your eyes is not your enemy.

It’s not always true, but I love the sentiment. When our employees have questionable ethics or are generally unproductive, it’s easy to think they’re being lazy or evil.

But when we dig in and understand why they’re behaving in a certain way, great things happen. We get to be part of their professional growth and rehabilitation, improving both their lives and the company culture. That’s why we love being managers.

So, as I keep saying: Ask questions and listen to your people. The results will amaze you!

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to inform and inspire, but should not be considered legal advice. We’re not lawyers, just business people trying to share what we know! 

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