HR Management & Compliance, Talent

‘I Know I Should Have Dealt with This Months Ago’

Our experiences with COVID-19 have demonstrated something your grandmother probably already told you: A problem ignored is not a problem solved. While procrastination can sometimes be a good thing (e.g., brussels sprouts go bad, so you don’t have to eat them), it also can set you up for failure, especially in the workplace—for example, not dealing with that underperforming employee.

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Consistently since last March, employment attorneys have heard about problems managers were having with various team members. “I know I should have dealt with this months ago,” one said. Or, “I really wish I had dealt with this before COVID-19 hit,” another added, demonstrating the additional stress and strain poorly functioning teams can have on simply getting the job done.

Ostrich Approach

Many managers take the ostrich approach, hoping a problem will simply go away if they don’t pay any attention to it. Unfortunately, problems with teams and how they’re structured rarely magically disappear. We know it can be hard to focus on team structure and dynamics for a variety of reasons:

  • It can be difficult to speak with others about how their communication or work styles affect a team, especially when the elements aren’t easily quantified.
  • Upper-level managers might duck difficult discussions because they’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings or simply don’t have time.

The problem with a leaky faucet, however, is that it not only drives you crazy with the drip, drip, drip but also loses you hundreds of gallons of water per year. The same can be true of your team when you lose quality employees, momentum, and good ideas to problems you simply choose not to resolve.

Failed Promotions

You have a great employee. She is wonderful and fabulous, you love her, and then you promote her out of her skillset. All of a sudden, she fails to perform, and the team starts to suffer. The issue to review here is whether the promotion was truly outside of her anticipated skillset.

In other words, is the problem something you may be able to fix with training, or is it fundamental to how the person interacts as a team lead or manager? If additional training might address the performance concerns, you need to go that route sooner rather than later before bad habits get ingrained and the team itself is demoralized.

Discipline Avoidance

Employees may be relatively scary for a wide array of reasons, including personality, litigation potential, or fear of the amount of disruption the individual will cause when counseled. Employers frequently say, “I try not to discipline him because he pouts for weeks on end, and everything is an uproar when we try to do it.”

When the employment attorney asks whether the employee’s performance improved, a typical response is, “For a day or two, but really not consistently.” The problems require direct, specific, and fairly straightforward communication. The individual may need a performance improvement plan and, if consistent and sustained improvement isn’t seen, further disciplinary action including termination.

Work with your attorney to manage the litigation risk and timing, but also remember: If you are scared of an employee, what about their subordinates and other coworkers? How disruptive will keeping the individual be to the team?

Other Issues

No time. Yep, we get it. Nobody has time. Nobody wants the drama. Nobody wants to deal with it, and everyone has something better to do. You should remember, however, how much more time it will take when you have to rehire an entire team because everybody else walked out the door. In addition, how much time does it take every day to deal with the minor irritations, the poor performance, or the ensuing problems among your team members?

Small workforce pool. It’s hard to hire good people. Here in Iowa, we have many jobs that might remain unfilled for a significant period, especially in rural areas. But as noted above, a bad employee only places burdens on other employees to pick up the slack and do the work, which creates significant emotional stress in the workplace.

Teamwork. Other issues can arise when each individual team member is fine, but the collective group doesn’t work together well, or you’re missing crucial elements. COVID-19 certainly affected employers across the board.

Given the fast pace of the business response to the pandemic as well as shifting federal, state, and local regulations and requirements, you are likely to have suffered significant issues if your team didn’t have a problem solver who could think strategically and for the long term. Teams require a balance of skills and talents before the crisis hits.

Expectations. Be transparent with expectations, goals, and what it takes to be a success. Employees can’t meet a standard you won’t explain to them. Accidentally sabotaging your team because you’re too busy or worried about who gets credit hurts everyone, including you.

Bottom Line

Much of the COVID-19 postgame assessment focuses on the issues of being kind, giving grace, and taking a deep breath. All wonderful advice—but kindness includes being clear about performance expectations and skillsets. No one likes to come to work every day knowing they are failing. You do your employees, yourself, and your company a service by providing clear feedback and expectations.

Jo Ellen Whitney is an attorney with the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa. You can reach her at