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By Anthony Wooding, ASM Plus associate, law lecturer and retired solicitor

Fed up with reading pure academic studies or self-promoting success stories on management? Want some well-balanced, practical advice?  Anthony is co-writing such a book…

Please do read this very helpful extract on dealing with under-performance and let us have your comments.

There is a tricky problem to deal with, both for the managed and managers:  those members of staff who don’t pull their weight. I am excluding those who may have health issues of one sort or another, meaning here those who bully or are lazy who ‘game’ the system knowingly and actively, and let their colleagues pick up their work. I have come across this a few times in my working life and, without exception, can say it is a real, major irritant to those who are conscientious. If managers handle this badly, it can have dire consequences for the team and the business.

I know it isn’t easy for a manager to deal with this sort of behaviour but, too often, I’ve come across management by avoidance: several complain about a colleague to their line manager but instead of listening to what they are being told, the line manager dismisses the complaints and tells the complainants to stop ‘picking on’ the individual concerned. I have seen the Halo Effect at work here, too, where this person is charming, has the gift of the gab, and so forth, and escapes any censure. And I have seen colleagues steaming with anger at this injustice (as they see it). Eventually, it can reach the state where those picking up their colleague’s work call it a day and leave (although potentially they might bring a claim too, for constructive dismissal).  Thus, the team and business lose good workers and retain poor ones. This situation does nothing for team morale, the happiness and well-being of the team, or the productivity or reputation of the company.

The first thing a good manager will do is investigate the facts as far as they are able to do so. A good manager will make no assumptions and have no theories, or at least, if they do, they must be prepared for them to be falsified. They should no more accept that the alleged under-performing is so, than that the complainants are exaggerating for whatever reason. The manager needs to observe, which means they can do no less than go on the floor and/or or look at files, whatever it may be, and see what the person complained of is up to and what their work rate is. As well as this, the manager must confidentially – and separately – interview the complainer (s). This process will lead finally to interviewing the allegedly under-performing person and presenting them with the evidence gathered. There may, however, be certain legal process requirements with that further stage which need to be gone into separately.

Management can never be lazy itself in its function. To be otherwise is slack management, to coin an appropriate phrase in this context.

Of course, managers are under pressure and there will be times when they fail because of that pressure. Managers need to be ‘people people’ and this means interest in, and sometimes dealing in, the interpersonal, by definition. Although, certainly I accept that the interpersonal can sometimes be so embedded that managers feel helpless and in lose-lose situations.  I recall a situation when I had a visit by a deputation of two support staff who just could not get on with a third who was talking too much, rude and distracting. Was I to judge an outcome just by numbers?  No. Although I was unable to either decide by investigation who was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, or what was a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ outcome, I was able at least to effect a pragmatic solution which had itself some element of being ’effective’, too, about it: I was able to arrange for the third person to be moved to a different desk, which seemed to suit all.

I also remember a case in which I was less effective. A member of staff complained about bullying by their direct line manager. I did well in investigating it thoroughly and then said to the complaint that I would talk to the line manager about it.  The complainant then said ‘do not identify me as the complainant’.  I said this put me in an impossible position going forward.   I think on reflection I could at least have interviewed other members of the same team to see how they experienced the same manager and even if that did not reveal anything supportive (or indeed to the contrary) I could have explained the predicament better to the complainant and maybe moved her anyway with her agreement.

Good management is also efficient management. Staff cannot be replaced easily or without expense. There will be the costs of recruitment and training as a minimum. These costs would be very significant, running into many thousands of pounds.  Whilst a degree of turnover of staff in a business is good, as all businesses need new blood from time to time, high turnover of staff is disruptive and expensive.

It does depend on the size of business. Bigger businesses have, of course, more resources and dedicated management roles for the purpose.  However, it also needs saying, although it is not a justification for slack management in bigger ones, that smaller businesses, especially owner-manager ones, have more vested interest in good management process. This is because bad management will directly affect the bottom line, including the income of the owner-managers.   Part of this task is for senior management, to make sure not only that good management cascades down (by example and promotion) but also that managers understand the economic case for it. Managers themselves will indirectly benefit financially too if the organisation is more efficient and therefore profitable as there is less scope for pay rises and more scope for business failure in a badly managed business. Of course, this is not something that can be directly stated, i.e., you are more likely to get a pay rise at some point or other, or not be made redundant if we have good management, because it isn’t that measurable and there are also a thousand other reasons why a business can succeed financially or not, well managed or not.

It may also be possible to touch other, direct levers, such as ‘if more staff leave because of bad management, e.g., not handling an underperformer allegation properly, then you as a manager will keep having the hassle of inducting and training new staff’.

Management depends on trust and confidence between manager and managed. There will be tensions there, of course, because of the different roles, but when it breaks down seriously that becomes actually an HR issue in itself. Hence a need sometimes to appeal ‘over their head’ to senior management.  If senior management are also slacking, they may refer you back to the line manager to at least have dialogue with the line manager about the issue. So, in effect, you have slack management failing to investigate (alleged) slack management failing to investigate the (alleged) slack staff member, a worst of all worlds.

Skills such as rigorous critical thinking and tools such as Transactional Analysis need to be learnt by managers and employed alongside objective, thorough investigation and effective interpersonal engagement, with the ability not to shy away from difficult decisions at the end of the day.

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