Q I own a small business with just a few employees. One of them has always been a very good worker, but lately she's started to cut corners. When I ask her to redo things, she does so cheerfully, but then slips up again. How can I get her back on track?
A Be direct with her and look for solutions, but be willing to make hard decisions if necessary.
The inner game
First, consider the effect on you, in terms of your mood and your energy level. In addition, notice the effect on her other co-workers. This type of behavior can undermine morale, especially if others are picking up the pieces.
Analyze when this behavior started; perhaps there was a trigger such as changes in the work environment or your expectations. This isn't to excuse her lapses, but to understand the pattern so that you may be able to mitigate it.
Consider feedback that you've given her so far. Critique your own feedback skills, because if you've been passive in dealing with it, she won't have a complete view of the issues. If you're nervous about giving negative feedback, confront your fears to develop this crucial leadership skill.
You'll need to know how far you're willing to go if her performance doesn't improve. Would you let her go? If so, she deserves to know that now. Also have a vision for her successful performance that you can share with her.
The outer game
The key is going to be having a candid, no-holds-barred, but pleasant conversation with her at a time when emotions are not high.
Prepare carefully for this meeting. Be able to articulate what the behavior is, the effect it has, and the consequence. For example, "Lately I've had to talk to you about maintaining the quality of your work. Yet the next time you do the same task, your quality slips again. This needs to change, so I'd really like to hear your view about it." This conversation is a great opportunity to understand if there are issues that you're not aware of.
She may raise workload, which may require prioritizing and resource allocation decisions. There may be a training issue or she may simply be bored. If the latter is the case, you may want to give her new responsibilities, or it may be time for her to move on. There may even be personal or health issues that are interfering with her performance that may come up. Be sure you're aware of any legal ramifications in case these types of things are mentioned.
She may be open to this conversation, or she could have become defensive or emotional. Rehearse how you'll handle it if she starts to cry or gets angry. If you're anxious about this, practice with a friend or family member.
If her job's on the line, or if she's risking demotion or a cut in pay, let her know. Then work with her on a plan to build better performance or to support her if she decides to move on.
The last word
Honesty is your best approach in this challenging situation -- it's fair both to your company and your employee.