Dealing with problem employees effectively

Instead of firing them, use these tips to coach problem cases into good employees

It’s getting tougher to find and keep good employees. Nor, by all indications, is the situation going to improve anytime soon. According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s newly released Labour Market Forecast for the next decade, farmers can expect an already tight labour market to get even tighter.

According to the council’s survey of farm employers, farmers are already experiencing a significant labour shortfall. Almost half of respondents reported they could not fill their current labour needs, and with more than a third of the existing workforce expected to retire in the next 10 years, the outlook is for it to get worse.

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Sad depressed farmer sitting on the tractor.

One strategy for countering the tight labour market is to focus on making the most of existing employees, even if they are currently underperforming, says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC).

Country Guide asked MacDonald-Dewhirst, and other HR consultants, to weigh in on strategies for managing underperforming team members.

The first thing managers need to do is stop thinking of them as “problem employees,” says Winnipeg HR performance consultant Michelle Painchaud. “The more we think of them as “problem employees,” the more we focus on deficiencies,” she says.

Instead, Painchaud recommends letting them know that you want to help them be successful. “Make them feel valued and appreciated,” she says. Employees usually don’t want to be “problem employees” and often don’t know they are underperforming. By thinking of them as a team member who needs help, the conversation and tone you use may be different.

And while managers don’t usually want to hear it, a “problem employee,” Painchaud says, can often be traced back to a “problem boss.”

Most of the time, when an employee underperforms, it’s the result of one of three causes, explains Painchaud:

  • Lack of clear expectations. The employee doesn’t understand or know what is expected of them.
  • Lack of skill or resources. The employee doesn’t have the skill or tools to perform.
  • Lack of consequences (can be positive or negative). The employee continues to underperform and there are no consequences so the employee doesn’t change. Or conversely, the employee tries hard, goes above and beyond, and doesn’t get any positive feedback, so they stop.

Pamela Paquet, a psychologist and business consultant in Chilliwack, B.C., agrees. Paquet puts more weight on the supervisor’s role than that of the employee. Good managers support and build good employees, she says. “Don’t be the boss that everyone (else) says needs fixing.”

Clarity of expectations and clear ongoing communication are the two most important factors in ensuring employees perform their jobs well, agrees MacDonald-Dewhirst. “Ensuring good communication between managers and the people they are responsible for, good clarity around what needs to get done and how… that’s when the magic happens,” she says.

Paquet agrees that constant and continuous feedback for employees is essential. Managers should be having ongoing interactive conversations with their employees. Don’t wait for quarterly or annual performance reviews, she says.

One way to improve communication as a manager is to ask employees more questions, says Paquet. Ask them what they need to do their job better. How can they be more efficient? What can we start, stop or adjust to improve our team? What are their interests? Are there any tasks they would like to try?

Too often managers wait until it’s a crisis, says Paquet. “Stay ahead of the game instead of playing catch-up,” she says. “Invest in employees for betterment rather than resorting to firing and hiring practices.”

The younger generation, in particular, will leave a job if they don’t feel supported, continues Paquet. High employee turnover is expensive, she says. There are direct costs such as advertising, hiring and training.

There are also indirect costs associated with vacant positions. Employees will “do more with less” in the short term but it’s not sustainable, says Paquet. Eventually, other employees will burn out or leave. It’s generally accepted in the industry that replacing an employee costs around three to six months’ salary.

You may also be on the hook for severance pay if you haven’t followed the proper protocols and documented how you’ve attempted to correct deficiencies in behaviour before letting an employee go, says Josée Lemoine, a certified management consultant and CEO at Backswath Management in Winnipeg.

The experts shared several performance management strategies that can help you avoid costly, and sometimes unnecessary, hiring and firing cycles.

Fairness is important so try to treat all employees the same, says Lemoine. This can be difficult when there are both family and non-family employees but having policies in writing will make it easier to apply them uniformly, she says.

Feedback should be given as soon as possible after an incident has occurred, says MacDonald-Dewhirst. Make it a practice to ensure feedback is regular, positive, specific, and documented, she says.

When an employee isn’t meeting expectations, Painchaud recommends following a 30-day Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) to help them become successful. The PIP is a strategy for both the manager and the employee to clarify the behaviours and tasks that need to improve. With effective feedback from the manager this strategy can be very successful, she says.

Don’t assume employees “have all the knowledge you have in your head,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. They have had different experiences and haven’t had the benefit of the same coaching you have had through the years, she adds.

Make sure expectations are clear, especially around safety, biosecurity, food safety, and quality control, and that employees understand the reasons behind the procedures, advises MacDonald-Dewhirst. She says studies have shown that managers think they give employees too much information on why things are done a certain way, while employees feel they don’t get enough.

Start off on the right track by hiring employees who are a good fit, says Lemoine. It’s important to understand what you should be looking for in an employee. For example, if your farm uses smartphone apps for task management and communications, employees who hate smartphones aren’t going to be a good fit.

Take a look at your onboarding procedures, says Lemoine. Set expectations early on. Let the employee know what success looks like and how they will be rewarded for meeting or exceeding targets.

Give constructive feedback, says MacDonald-Dewhirst. Share observations, not opinions or judgments such as “you’re lazy.” Perhaps the employee has been prioritizing the wrong tasks or doesn’t have the necessary training to get the job done.

Try to get to the root of the problem, says Lemoine. “It can take time to have the conversations to find out the real issues.”

While employees can be coached to perform better in many ways, Lemoine is clear that there should be no second chances for some problem behaviours. These include violence, operating equipment while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, being disrespectful of another employee’s gender or culture, theft, or putting others at risk in any way.

Employees who don’t accept responsibility, who blame others, or are passive-aggressive can create a toxic environment, agrees Paquet. “There are times when nobody in the chair is better than the wrong person in the chair.”

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