Chief Counsel: Help That Difficult Employee Find a Way to Succeed

Posted February 25, 2009 at 3:01pm

Q:
One of my staffers is really problematic and he’s bringing down the entire office. My boss won’t let me dismiss him. What should I do?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: I am going to assume, for purposes of this column, that you have already justified to your boss the numerous ways this staffer is harming the office and the Member himself or herself, and yet the boss remains adamant about not dismissing him. We have come across many instances of Members who are unwilling to dismiss staff due either to political reasons or simply a general resistance to firing people, regardless of the costs to the office. We have even heard, not infrequently, of Members who wanted someone to quit and, yet, end up convincing the person to stay when the staffer came into their office to resign. While the chief of staff likely has most of the staffing responsibility, Members are rarely willing to relinquish all authority.

There are a number of strategies to manage this staffer, but the first step is to build acceptance of the situation in yourself. If you wake up every morning and go to sleep every evening with negative thoughts about him and the harmful effect he has on the office, you are likely contributing to the problem. Not only will you notice and magnify every instance in your mind, but your responses will likely exacerbate the effects for you, him and other staff.

Spend some time with the idea that this staffer is not leaving and that you must make the best of the situation. You may even try to empathize with your boss’s behavior (that he truly cares about the well-being of his staff or that he is in a terrible position having hired someone whom he could politically never fire). As you come to terms with the situation, you may find that it is not as dire you initially felt; then, hopefully, you will be able to refocus your previous frustration on other endeavors. Don’t think I am minimizing the difficult spot you’re in. However, brooding about an outcome that is not possible is unlikely to serve you in a productive way at work or at home.

Once you have decided to move your dissatisfaction to an embrace, you are ready to begin appreciating the staffer for whatever he can bring to the office. Explore deeply why you (or someone else) hired the staffer in the first place. What does he bring to the table? Are we best leveraging these skills, relationships or knowledge?

Research repeatedly proves that people are at their best — their “sweet spot” — when they are playing to their strengths. Try to notice and promote these traits wherever possible. As you find opportunities to compliment the staffer, you will increase his self-esteem and engagement, therefore increasing his contribution to the office. You may find that his role in the office not only doesn’t leverage his strengths, but instead highlights his weaknesses. If this is the case, you should look for chances to redesign roles and responsibilities in the office, no matter the cost.

I repeatedly come across situations where the Member not only hired a staffer whom you wouldn’t have, but also hired him or her at a very high salary, “forcing” the person into a senior role in the office. This is especially frustrating and can make you feel trapped into certain salary injustices that cascade to every staffer in the office. Try taking salary out of the equation as you are problem- solving.

As you explore the staffer’s strengths and weaknesses, you may find opportunities to improve certain skills to increase his contribution to the office. The first step is always to provide feedback to the staffer on areas needing improvement. Ideally, you would document this discussion in a performance review or performance improvement plan. The feedback should be continual and should focus on discrete steps. If you or his supervisor feel that you have exhausted your own capabilities, consider allocating money or outside resources toward the staffer’s development.

For example, if he has difficulty with effective communication or time management, you can suggest readings or courses to target building these skills. It is important that you don’t simply “send him to training” but instead show you are vested in the process and the outcome of his professional development. Show your commitment by engaging in direct conversations about his strengths and weaknesses, identifying goals for development, checking in on progress and acknowledging improvements.

If you have redesigned the role and invested heavily in the staffer’s development and you still feel that he has not improved, encourage him to explore another career path. Offer your assistance in pursuing those options and, if possible, even make introductions that could help the staffer find a new job.

The above strategies focus on trying to get more and better work out of this staffer. But sometimes it is less about improving the performance than it is about damage control and reducing the harm. You must talk with other staffers to fully understand the impact of the underperformer. Ensure the staff feels heard, let them know the specific actions you intend to take to address their concerns, and then follow through.

And finally, document, document, document. Always protect yourself and the boss. Underperformers have the potential of doing real damage to your and your boss’s reputation. Both to justify yourself for future action, as well as protect yourself against possible damage, document the staffer’s behavior and your response to it along the way.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.