Inheriting an Employee with Disciplinary Problems

By Paul Falcone

The Problem
Incorporating employees from other departments is a fairly common occurrence in corporate America. Of course, hiring someone from another group who is looking for a transfer is one thing; being told that you have to now incorporate someone from another department into your team in light or restructurings and other corporate initiatives—especially if he’s known to have performance or conduct problems—is quite another. And to make matters worse, you’ll sometimes have a newly inherited employee join your group with a set of unrealistic expectations established by the former supervisor:

“My boss promised me a 10% merit raise this year. Is that still on?”

“I’ve been told I’ll be promoted on my anniversary, which happens to be next month. What would you like my new title to be?”

“Yes, it’s true that I’m on final written warning for what my boss called substandard job performance, but she just didn’t like me.”

Remember, this is what you signed up for when you got into management! These individual challenges could often take up more of your time and cause you more angst that the whole cultural integration process of merging your new and old teams together. When one employee is a squeaky wheel of sorts, dedicate your time to hearing the individual’s side of the story and tending to his or her needs, but promise nothing until you’ve had a chance to research the situation thoroughly and through as many sources as possible.

The Solution
What prior management promised in terms of promotions and large salary increases may in fact hold true because it’s documented and because your human resources and finance departments have given prior approval. More often than not, though, you’ll find that such claims are based on assumptions on the employee’s part, so be sure and temper their ambitions while you look further into the matter.

Unfortunately, you may have the unpleasant chore of communicating to your new employee that former management, HR, and finance do not agree that this was a done deal, so the huge merit increase and/or promotion won’t be happening this go-around.

In cases like this, let the individual know exactly whom you spoke with, what the person said, and why there may have been confusion. That being said, confirm that all parties are in agreement with the decision, and invite the employee to speak directly with those individuals himself if he so chooses. Just remember that you weren’t part of that decision. You’re simply communicating what was communicated to you, and you’ll be open to evaluating the situation with a fresh set of eyes on a go-forward basis.

“Gene, I researched your initial request regarding the promotion from assistant to coordinator that you believe you were promised. In actuality, though, after speaking with Mark in Finance, Carson in human resources, and Ashley, your former supervisor, I’m afraid that your proposed promotion never formally got approved. Ashley had every intention of making that happen, but as you know, without signed approval from the department, HR, and finance, the item remains on the wish list.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to award a promotion now due to company budget constraints and the fact that our working relationship is untested. If you’d like to speak with Mark, Carson, or Ashley, you’re more than welcome to do that. I can only tell you what they’ve shared with me and also let you know how I’m planning on handling the matter as your new supervisor. I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you.”

Sometimes, though, it will be more than hurt feelings or disappointment that you’ll be inheriting. Candidates who are transferred into you group on final written warning status for substandard job performance, attendance, or inappropriate workplace conduct may cause specific challenges. When that is the case, make copies of the written and final written warnings, share them with the employee up front in a private meeting, and talk about them openly. In most cases, it’s best to get things like that out in the open and to discuss them rationally, adult to adult. You might open your meeting with the employee as follows:

“Michelle, I realize that there are typically two sides to every story, but the validity of the documents isn’t in question: As far as I’m concerned, they’re valid because they’re in your personnel file with your signature. What I’m looking for now is how we reinvent our relationship and move forward, one hand with a clean slate, and on the other with knowledge that these prior occurrences are real and to a certain extent ‘in play’. Share with me how you’d recommend that we reconcile these two realities.”

What you want to look for now is how the individual responds to those warnings. If she is very defensive and quick to blame others, you may have someone who suffers from “victim syndrome” and who fails to take responsibility for her own actions. In comparison, if she readily admits that she’s made mistakes, assumes responsibility for her actions, and is committed to avoiding those mistakes in the future, you’re halfway there. That’s because people who readily admit that they were the cause of a perception problem—even if they don’t agree with the facts—demonstrate a high level of business maturity and are much more prone to seeing the bigger picture and not repeating past mistakes.

Yes, these can be challenging scenarios that are sometimes forced on you, especially if you really like your current team and really don’t want the added responsibility of integrating others into the close-know environment that you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. But don’t underestimate the value of this opportunity that lies before you. You’ll rarely be given such a chance to shine from a leadership development standpoint, your resume will have a nice new juicy bullet point to discuss for years to come, and you may just find that today’s most sought-after attribute—the ability to lead others through transition and demonstrate key leadership skills in a changing business environment—is a hidden strength that you can apply in any workplace situation that comes your way.

© 2009 Paul Falcone. Excerpted from 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager’s Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges (Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, 2009).

Author Bio:
Paul Falcone is Vice President of Employee Relations at Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles and was formerly Vice President of Human Resources at Nickelodeon. In addition to 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees (AMACOM, 2009), he is the author of 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, and 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire.

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