Why Not Give Employees a Chance to Redeem Themselves?


There are stories of managers who have taken derailed employees and jimmied them back on track. Unfortunately most of us have not experienced this personally. Since leadership coaching and mentoring is a rocky uphill climb, most of us take the easier path which has three trailheads. Trailhead number one is to avoid confronting the undesired behavior. Trailhead number two is to ship the employee to another department. Trailhead number three is to take the behavior until we can't stand it anymore and fire the employee either within the first 90 days of employment or sometime thereafter. All trails merge at the summit of pink slip peak.

Can employees change behavior? Good question. And the answer based on years of experience managing front-line employees, managing managers and now coaching leaders is a resounding yes. Behavior change is driven from within and influenced from the outside. Insightful employees often identify what isn't working and make the appropriate changes. Others, less perceptive, need the wakeup call of performance reviews. Leaders love insightful employees and get grumpy about the obtuseness of the less perceptive. Unfortunately many employees are the latter and it is here that good leaders get a chance to shine. They shine by mastering the ability to articulate the employee's behavior in a respectful way and in a manner that the employee can hear. The leader then shares how the behavior negatively impacts the organization. If the aforementioned communication is done timely, consistently, effectively and with compassion, the employee can change.

Often leaders fall into the trap of using adjectives to describe the behavior, such as "you were rude", "you were late", "you were angry", etc. These descriptors can be frustratingly vague to the employee and can make them mad or hurt or both. If the employee rises to their own defense the employer can consider this insubordinate and the battle begins. This is key--when behavior is described specifically, the employee can understand it and has less reason to feel offended.

Most often leaders deal with repeat offenders. Certainly there are employees who hear the employer's concerns once and change, but they are the exception, not the rule. Employees re-inventing themselves wander off trail periodically and good leaders gently nudge them back in the right direction. Violent employee behavior demands different tactics. Leaders must act decisively to protect the well-being of their employees and customers and not worry about assuaging the employee's ego. For this article, however, let's concentrate on employee behavior that is non-violent.

When an employer is talking with an employee on an isolated incidence, it is important to understand the employee's perspective while remaining firm about the behavior that is being addressed. It is critical that the leader clarify what good behavior looks like and what it does not look like. It is important to outline the consequences if the employee does not fix the problem including disciplinary action up to and including termination.

Here's an example of an employee who has chronic issues with "yelling" and "being angry" with people. Both of those words are adjectives and won't be helpful to have an employee hear the main concern of behavior. Instead though, if an employee is told that on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. s/he was observed as raising his/her voice at a customer or another employee. This behavior was followed by the same employee pounding a fist on the counter top repeatedly. And then the employee immediately left the area quickly without notice. Most employees can understand the description of the behaviors. Then if the leader is able to add that this is the 4th time this type of behavior has been demonstrated by the employee in the last week it adds frequency to the descriptive behavior. Asking the employee if s/he understands the concern is helpful as it allows you to see if the employee understands the concerns.

Sometimes, no matter how concrete the leader is with actual examples of bad behavior, he/she runs up against employee tendency toward self-defensiveness and resentment. When that occurs, it is helpful to move to the organizational fit scenario. In other words, let the employee know that it is his/her choice to continue the behavior but that behavior is not a fit for your organization. This gives the employee an out--it is about fit, not about being wrong. The employee will either choose to change or leave without bitterness. Either outcome is a win/win for the organization.

Here are 11 tips in summary to help employees see the value of changing behavior:

  1. Follow organizational policy and procedures and if you have none, draft your desires in a policy format and contact a human resource expert to review and advise you.
  2. Deal with behaviors that don't align with organizational values and expectations as quickly as they occur.
  3. Master the ability to describe specific behavior versus your adjectives of the behavior.
  4. Consistently deal with outliers each and every time there is a behavioral issue.
  5. Outline the consequences of repeated behavior.
  6. No matter what, practice not being defensive during meetings with employees and move what could be confrontational conversation to a discussion.
  7. Document your discussions including the consequences and provide the employee with a copy.
  8. Begin the "fit to the organization" discussion if the employee just can't hear and/or doesn't agree the behavior is an issue.
  9. Assist employees who don't fit the organization with an exit strategy.
  10. 10. With employees who change behavior, become proficient in giving praise for the change.
  11. 11. Keep track of the number of employees who victoriously change and realize it is possible to give employees a chance to redeem themselves.

Following these tips gives leaders the tools to coach behaviorally-challenged personnel. And perhaps more importantly, they give the employee a chance to become an asset to themselves and the organization rather than a liability.

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