Once upon a time, Chuck hired Jackie.
Jackie had aced a grueling interview process with Chuck and 11 potential colleagues. Everyone liked her immediately and thought she would be an excellent fit. She had the perfect work experience & industry depth for Chuck’s new Product Manager opening. Chuck enthusiastically offered Jackie the role. Jackie enthusiastically said “yes.”
Fast forward four months.
Chuck is concerned. Jackie is struggling. She is already two weeks late delivering her biggest assignment to date: a competitive review. She seems disorganized, not yet recognizing who-she-should-talk-to-about-what or moving ahead independently with her assignments. She managed to annoy the head of Marketing last week by making some inappropriate assumptions. Although she was brimming with energy and ideas at her interviews, Jackie has seemed quiet – even pensive – of late. She has been burning the midnight oil to familiarize herself with the company and its products. But there has been no obvious payoff yet.
Chuck ponders. Did he not provide appropriate support and training in Jackie’s early weeks? Or is he overreacting? Does he just need more patience with his new hire’s learning curve? Or should he jump in and give Jackie a verbal or written warning — or put her on a 30-day “Performance Improvement Plan”? Would such actions this early in the game deflate Jackie’s confidence and enthusiasm, just making the situation worse?
Leaders fall into some common “traps” when confronted with the new hire who is stumbling. Here are 4 of the most common pitfalls, why they set you back, and how to avoid them.
Pitfall #1: Retreating from relationship-building
Humans invest less in getting to know someone if they suspect that person may not “be around” in the future. Why waste the time? When you’re frustrated with someone, inviting them to grab lunch may be the last thing you want to do. From Chuck’s perspective, getting to know Jackie better will just make the process of letting her go harder if that’s what’s ultimately needed, right?
Recommendation: Buck those instincts and take extra time to build a relationship if you have a struggling new employee. This may save the day for you, them, and your company. Some newbies perceive (or misperceive) that their new boss doesn’t care about them or their success. This can lead to lowered confidence, lower motivation to perform, fear of speaking honestly about any job frustrations, or reticence to tell you what they need most from you to turn things around.
You’ve heard the old adage “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” A corollary should be: “Keep your high performers close, and your poor performers closer.” A stronger relationship makes you a much more effective coach.
And if your struggling employee must ultimately be terminated, keep in mind that fired employees sue for wrongful dismissal far less often when they had a respectful, caring, communicative, and honest relationship with the supervisor who ultimately decided to let them go.
Pitfall #2: Not paying attention to “learning styles”
People learn in different ways. Some learn best by first watching others, then trying themselves. Others prefer to jump right in, even if it means they’ll make a couple mistakes along the way. Yet others like to study, read books, or watch videos. Or have someone outline the 7 steps involved in getting “x” done.
What if Chuck has spent hours in conference rooms with Jackie, describing what’s needed? And has already provided every PowerPoint, manual, and online help link Jackie could possibly need to flourish?
Too bad — because Jackie doesn’t have a theoretical, bookish approach to life. She is a more pragmatic “learn by watching” person. She REALLY just wants to get out there and shadow a successful project manager for a couple weeks to learn the ropes.
Recommendation: Don’t assume everyone learns the same way (or that they learn like you). Instead, ask new employees upon arrival in your group what works best for them. When they had successful transitions into new jobs in the past, what tactics did they find most helpful in ramping their performance quickly? Do they like to read and study? To shadow others in action before trying new tasks themselves? Do they like to be “thrown in” and feel their way through new challenges? Or perhaps they appreciate role play opportunities? Keep the conversation about learning styles going for their first six months, revisiting and expanding upon what works — and stopping what doesn’t.
Pitfall #3: Assuming employees put on performance improvement plans won’t remain with the company
Unfortunately, at some organizations’ Performance Improvement Plans (“PIPs”) are primarily seen and used as a legal prelude to dismissal. In our scenario, Chuck may worry that putting Jackie on a “PIP” is tantamount to telling her she’s (almost) fired.
But at an increasing number of organizations, PIPs are used as part of the coaching process. They clarify exactly what’s not working. They define what the struggling employee and their manager each commit to doing to turn things around.
I recently worked at a large multinational firm where a full 60% of new employees (defined as “less than one year of tenure”) who were put on PIPs successfully came off them and kept their jobs. Many even flourished once they made it through a rocky learning period.
Recommendation: Make sure you know how written PIPs are used, formatted, and perceived at your organization. Be prepared to use them when necessary. New employees benefit (as do you) if you move as quickly as possible to think through performance problem specifics, solutions, metrics, and goals – then put them in writing. If it is too early for a formal PIP, or if you feel you owe your employee another real crack at improvement before HR gets involved, call your written document whatever you want. A coaching plan. A turnaround plan. There should be ample room for your document to reflect joint contributions and thinking from both you AND the struggling employee.
Finally, if you must go to a formal PIP, try to maintain a coaching mindset. Remember that many people put on PIPs have used that process to bootstrap their way back to good performance.
Pitfall #4: Thinking termination is the only way out
Work relationships are a two-way street. If you’re unhappy with a new employee, it’s very possible that they’re unhappy with you or their new job, too. They may feel frustrated about not catching on or fitting in. They may feel a distinct lack of positive feedback and/or frequent criticism – and take those hard.
Most interview processes are brief. Typically people can’t try on a new job (or employee) the way they can try on a new suit before buying. Which means sometimes the right person ends up in the wrong job. Yielding a poor “fit” that is hard to blame on anyone in particular. Managers sometimes forget that this poor fit tends to be felt by both parties.
The good news? If there is a truly bad fit that worries your new employee as much as you, there may be a way to part company without having to fire them.
Recommendation: Try a “crossroads conversation.” At the moment you start to seriously worry about this employee’s ability to do their new job, have a heart-to-heart chat. Perhaps over a lunch, coffee, or a walk out of the usual office setting.
In this conversation, you must do a lot more listening than talking. Get curious. “How are you feeling about the new role?” “Is it what you expected?” “What do you like and not like about it so far?” “Are the things you don’t like changeable?” “Now that you’ve been here 4 months, can you see yourself happy working here for a couple more years?”
Assure them this check-in is motivated by the fact you truly want them to be happy and successful in their professional life. If you’ve established a good personal connection (see Pitfall #1 above) and if you can come from a caring, listening position, it is not unusual for your struggling new employee to admit his or her job isn’t what they expected or wanted. It is possible to get THEM to admit “this isn’t a good fit” before you have to say it yourself.
At this point, you might be able to support them in making a choice to leave the job. Which spares them the psychic pain of termination. Some experts suggest determining a period of time where the employee remains working for you, but is able to interview elsewhere. (While you start working on finding a replacement.)
If done right, a caring “crossroads conversation” may allow everyone the ability to exit a frustrating relationship with a minimum of pain and dislocation.
But back to Chuck and Jackie …
After lots of thought, Chuck invites Jackie to join him on a walk. “Maybe I’m wrong – but I sense that you’re frustrated with our product management approach here. And I really want you to be happy, Jackie. You’ve got lots of talents and they should be put to use in a place you can flourish and enjoy your work. What’s going on for you?”
Jackie admits that indeed, she is not happy. After describing why, she proposes that she start looking for another job. “Can I stay here working for the next month while I begin looking for another job?”
“Absolutely,” says Chuck, breathing an internal sigh of relief. “I can definitely support you with that, and give you some time each week to interview elsewhere. That will give me time to hire your replacement, perhaps even before you’re gone. I do appreciate your candor Jackie. I think this is the best outcome given the situation. I will work to ease the transition for you and for the rest of our team here.”
So both Chuck and Jackie lived happily ever after. At two different companies.
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