When Just Enough Is Enough To Be Fired

Sunday Nov 18th 2007 by Eric Spiegel
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How do you handle an IT professional who under-performs in one critical area, but who’s strong in everything else?

Tick, tick, tick. I found myself watching the clock every morning. I was waiting. And waiting. And still waiting. I was becoming more impatient by the minute. 9:05 am, 9:10 am, 9:15 am and then finally – Susan walked down the hall in front of my office.

Was I being an overzealous, micromanager? In this case, I don’t believe that was the issue. Turns out Susan (name changed to protect the tardy) came in between 9 and 9:30 am every day for work. The problem is that core hours were from 9 am to 4:30 pm, and this was established in the employee handbook that every new employee received at orientation.

And the problem in Susan’s case wasn’t that she just didn’t read the handbook. I had multiple review meetings with her explaining that she was expected to be in the office during core hours. Some people worked 7 am until 3:30 pm (I wonder if they really arrived at 7am every day?…sorry, I digress). Others work from 9 am until 5:30 pm. All we asked is that they be there during core hours unless excused by their manager. And for lunch, of course.

Timeliness was even more critical for our team because we were responsible for customer support. If the phone rang at 9 am, per our SLA, someone had to answer or return the call within 15 minutes.

What was Susan’s reaction to me pressing her on this issue?

“I’m a night owl”

Really.

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Well, my initial response was to ask her to do her best to be in on time. Obviously, her best wasn’t good enough because she consistently came in after 9 am. Now note, she was not late in the extreme sense. It was maybe 5 minutes or 15 minutes. But she was late in the consistent sense. Day after day. Week after week.

At my third discussion with her, I laid down the law. If she continued to be “tardy” (for some reason I don’t like that word, but if the shoe fits…) her annual review would reflect under-performance in accountability, which would impact her raise and bonus amount.

Susan took umbrage at this and defensively stated “Please explain how my accountability can be in question if I excel at my job when I’m in the office.”

Hmmm.

Ok, her point wasn’t too hard to respond to. I said “Are you really excelling at your job if a support call comes in and you aren’t at your desk to answer it? Is it fair to the rest of the team who is in the office during core hours and they have to cover for you?”

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She thought about it for a half a second and said “No one on the team has complained and they all like working with me because I go out of my way to help them. They’ll cover for me if I’m a tad late. And besides, I usually work more than eight hours”

Hmmm, again.

This point was a harder one to respond to. No one had complained, and it was true that no calls were ever missed because someone always covered when Susan was on first line support any day she was late. It was as if the team had accepted her lateness quirk because she did excel at her job, with her superior customer interaction skills and knowledge of our products. So was this really a big deal after all?

I believe the answer is yes, it is a big deal. Because if you give on one rule, then you open up the door to others being challenged. Now if the rule is not working, then it should be revisited by management. Maybe core hours should start later – but that requires a business impact analysis. The rules were made with an analysis and they needed to be adhered to or there had to be consequences.

Think about it this way. If Susan was pulled over by the highway patrol for doing just a few miles over the speed limit, the officer can let her go with a warning or serve her with a ticket. If he only provides a warning, what are the chances she’ll repeat the offense? I’d say likely. On the contrary, if he serves up a ticket then she’ll think twice before speeding on that road again.

This behavior does not just apply to work attendance. What would you do if an employee consistently delivers projects a couple of days late, but the work delivered is outstanding? Or what if the employee doesn’t return customer calls on time, but when he does, the answers are on the money and the customers aren’t complaining? My guess is you have experienced many more behaviors that push the envelope on accountability.

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It simply is not easy to punish an employee that performs above average in every job responsibility except one area where they consistently under-perform. I’d suggest talking it through with them and helping them see the light – that their actions do have consequences.

If that doesn’t work, you can always go the Tom Coughlin route. The coach of the New York Giants will fine his players if they aren’t a few minutes EARLY for team meetings. I hope your discussions go better than mine did with Susan. She eventually switched to another department, where her manager let her come in as she pleased. Perhaps I lost a great team member by being a stickler for the rules, but I still feel like my position was correct.

And I should mention that I successfully made a business case to change core hours to start at 9:30 am, citing the pressure on employees to make it in by 9 am with increased traffic congestion, and that this was impacting their performance and job satisfaction. The early bird arrivers (who it turns out actually did arrive by 7 am) covered the pre-core hours for customer support.

Now I wonder if Susan will come back to my team? Would you?

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