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Loss Prevention Managers: How Do You Deal with Problem Employees?

You hate confrontations with employees. They only seem to make things worse. Sometimes you even end up firing an employee. For these reasons, you generally avoid giving employees negative feedback unless it’s absolutely necessary. When it comes to small performance issues, you don’t come down like a ton of bricks; instead, you hint at a problem, making suggestions that will indirectly improve the situation… you hope. Sometimes, if the problem seems relatively insignificant, you let it slide. Yes, some employees take advantage of this, but you hesitate to push too hard because you don’t want to make a scene.

The typical hands-off loss prevention manager avoids performance problems until they can no longer be ignored. But problems always come up. By the time a problem can no longer be avoided, the dreaded confrontation is inevitable.

So how do the best loss prevention managers deal with so-called “problem employees?”

Establish Regular Conversations

Without regular daily or weekly management conversations with a strong focus, the loss prevention manager has no natural venue in which to provide the employee with regular evaluation and feedback—good, bad, or neutral. Instead of regular and consistent “problem solving,” which is a good thing, dealing with problems becomes a difficult conversation to be avoided.

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If small problems are dealt with at all, they are dealt with lightly and in passing, which means these problems are likely to recur. When the problem recurs, it might not be noticed, it might be let to slide, or it might be dealt with again, maybe lightly and in passing. That means the problem is likely to recur once more. Sometimes, small problems that recur incessantly cause managers to finally explode in an outburst of frustration or anger. Other times, small problems recur incessantly and become part of the fabric of the workplace. But some small problems fester and grow. Over time, they become large problems.

By the time most “performance improvement” conversations actually take place, it’s too late for the loss prevention manager to be effective. For one thing, solving a problem after it has already festered and grown large is so much more difficult than preventing that problem in the first place, or solving it while it was smaller. Now much time and energy has to be spent cleaning up the mess and restoring the status quo.

For another thing, in the midst of a problem, people are never going to be at their best. The situation is urgent and people are stressed, frustrated, and in a hurry. Many managers fail to deal with problems until they get angry. Sometimes these conversations become heated.

On top of all that, employees often feel attacked when they are confronted with a negative assessment of their behavior. These conversations often come as a shock, as if without warning, especially when the performance in question is a problem that has been festering for some time. The employee is likely to say, or at least think, “I’ve been doing this same thing for days, weeks, or months, so why now all of a sudden are you coming down on me?”

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Often the loss prevention manager starts to second-guess himself: “Do I have all the facts? Did I spell out expectations clearly? Am I being fair?” And the answers are probably no, no, and no. Plus, neither the manager nor the employee is experienced at having conversations with each other about the employee’s performance, so neither the employee nor the manager is very good at it. These conversations are going to be difficult. Most performance improvement conversations are doomed before they even start.

These conversations are often followed by hours of fixing, salvaging, and cleaning up to get things back on track. This is often what managers mean when they say they spend all their management time “fighting fires and solving problems” and thus get behind on their “real” work. After solving a performance problem that never had to become so urgent in the first place, the typical manager convinces himself that he definitely doesn’t have any more time to do any more managing. The manager goes right back to his hands-off, under-managing ways, awaiting the next unnecessary crisis, when he will spring into action once again.

Meanwhile, the employee is likely to feel demoralized. There are bad feelings. Sometimes it can be hard to bounce back and start feeling good about the job and the manager again. In many cases, things do get back to normal. But sometimes, especially after a very difficult confrontation between a manager and an employee, the situation goes downhill. The employee might even go into a downward spiral.

Do you want to be great at solving performance problems on your loss prevention team? Do you want to find it downright easy to tell associates when and how they need to improve? If you do, you need to anticipate and avoid one problem after another—and solve small problems whenever they crop up. If you engage in regular problem solving, nine out of ten performance problems will be solved quickly and easily or will be avoided altogether. In most cases, even long-standing problems will die away under the withering medicine of regular and consistent strong management.

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Solve One Small Problem at a Time

No problem is so small that it should be left alone; small problems too often fester and grow into bigger problems. Sometimes managers are afraid to nitpick. “After all,” these managers say, “everybody makes mistakes. If a small problem occurs that is not likely to recur, doesn’t it do more harm than good sometimes to focus on it?” It only does more harm than good if you focus on small problems to the exclusion of other important details, including small successes.

If you are talking with employees about the details of their work on a regular basis, then talking about small problems— whatever they may be— should be something you do as a matter of course. Solving small problems should be part of your ongoing dialogue with that employee. In this context, nitpicking is a good thing. It sends a message that high performance is the only option, that details matter, and that you are paying close attention. You are also doing the employee a favor by making her aware of the small problem so that she can fix it or avoid it in the future. Over time, you are doing the employee the added favor of helping her become more detail oriented.

This is not about perfectionism. Perfectionism is the disabling fear of completing a task, dressed up in the pursuit of an illusory quality standard. Zeroing in on small problems is about constant improvement. In the course of regular guidance and direction, addressing one small problem after another is what ongoing performance improvement actually looks like. Constant evaluation and feedback help you revise and adjust your marching orders. In turn, the employee revises and adjusts her performance. Through this slow, steady progress, you help employees revise and adjust so they can keep practicing and fine-tuning.

When you diagnose a performance problem, start focusing intensely in your regular management conversations on spelling out concrete solutions as in these examples.

If a loss prevention associate is often tardy, don’t tell him to stop coming in late. Tell him to start coming in on time. Talk to him before he has a chance to be tardy again. At the end of his shift today, remind him exactly at what time he is supposed to arrive tomorrow. Ask him if he is giving himself enough time to get to work in the morning.

If an employee is failing to meet quality standards, don’t tell her to stop missing details and ignoring specifications. Give her a checklist of every detail and specification she needs to get right. Talk it through in advance. Ask her to carry the checklist and check off each detail and specification as she completes them.

If an employee is too slow, set a realistic quota of tasks per hour or set realistic short-term deadlines with a clear timetable of benchmarks from beginning to the end. Suggest that she give herself a time limit to complete each task and stick to it.

Deal with Intangible Issues

Many of the most vexing employee performance problems seem intangible and therefore difficult to coach employees out of. How do you tell an employee how to have a better attitude, for example? If you want to see a bad attitude get much worse, try telling someone with a bad attitude that she has a bad attitude. Don’t. It is never helpful to “name” a behavior if you are trying to get someone to change it. Instead, describe behavior.

For example, instead of saying, “You are in a bad mood this morning, and that’s really disruptive,” try saying something like “At 9:13 a.m., you walked through the door. Instead of closing it gently, you pushed the doorknob swiftly and rather hard so that the door slammed shut, making a loud noise. Then you said in a loud voice, ‘This place sucks!’ After that, you walked quickly to your desk, in such a way that every step you took made a loud thud.” Then, connect the behavior with concrete work outcomes: “This distracts other employees from their work. It makes other employees, including me, reluctant to talk to you even when they need things from you.”

Spell out the behavior you want to see instead: “Tomorrow, please come in by 9:00 a.m. When you open the door, please don’t slam it shut; hold the handle and push the door gently. Try to smile and speak in a quiet voice. Walk slowly, so your steps are quiet. If you feel the urge to say something negative, bite your tongue. That’s how I want you to arrive at work tomorrow and every day. Let’s make that a standard operating procedure.”

What if an employee lacks passion or enthusiasm for retail loss prevention? Involve her more deeply in daily projects and teach her new skills. It is worth remembering that few people start out passionate or enthusiastic about anything. Most people need to do the job for a while before they feel any enthusiasm for it. Also, it’s rarely what they are doing that makes them feel passionate, but rather how they are doing it. When people do something with purpose and precision, it is possible to unlock the joy in that work. It also helps when they do it with other people who care a lot about that work.

What if an employee is not disposed to take initiative? Provide that employee with an explicit list of “extra to-do items” to avoid downtime. Employees who lack initiative are often not sure what to do after they’ve completed their basic tasks. By providing them with extra to-do items, you eliminate this uncertainty. Explain that when their normal work is done, they should move on to these extra items.

If an employee fails to take on enough responsibility, make tough decisions, or solve problems when they arise, work with that person closely to develop decision/action tools. Talk through every circumstance you can foresee. For each one, provide simple and clear marching orders to the employee: “If A happens, do X. If B happens, do Y. If C happens, do Z,” and so on.

If an employee does his job just fine, but never goes the extra mile, describe the big picture for that person. Explain to the employee exactly what going the extra mile looks like and make sure the employee knows what’s in it for her: “If you go the extra mile today by doing A, B, and C, then here’s what I can do for you in return.”

You’ll be amazed at how many seemingly intangible issues can be made tangible just by doing the hard work of clarifying expectations. With some persistent coaching, you can help someone make a lasting and meaningful change on something as intangible as a bad attitude, lacking enthusiasm, or going the extra mile.

When Problems Persist

Some problems resist solutions even when you deal with them aggressively and persistently. Take a step back and ask yourself if you are missing something. Have you properly diagnosed the problem? Do you need to look at the problem in a new way? At this stage of the game, nearly all performance problems fall into one or more of three categories: ability, skill, or will.

If the problem is ability, your employee’s natural strengths are probably not a good match with some or all of the tasks and responsibilities in her current role. If this is the case, your best option is to change the tasks and responsibilities that are a poor match and replace them with work that is a better fit. If you cannot do that, you may have to face the fact that you have the wrong person for the job.

If the problem is skill—an employee is missing knowledge, hasn’t mastered techniques, or lacks necessary tools or resources—it is your job to make sure that the employee gets what she needs to succeed. Find the gaps in her skills and fill them by offering her training or the right tools and resources. If you cannot get her what she needs, it is your responsibility to work with that employee to figure out how to limp along as well as possible without it.

The hardest nut to crack, of course, is motivation—the will to perform. Every person is different, so what motivates each person is different. But in the case of persistent performance problems, the real question is, “What demotivates a person?” Sometimes an employee has an internal issue, maybe a personality trait that is not going to go away. Maybe the employee has an actual physical or psychological pathology that requires the help of a trained therapist or doctor. If you have an employee who is underperforming due to an internal issue, your only option is to refer the employee to HR so that he can get professional help. You are not a doctor or a psychologist or a best friend. At work, you have to be the boss. Sometimes these issues can be sensitive and need to be handled by someone who is equipped to deal with them.

More often, though, an employee is demotivated at work because of external reasons. Maybe there is something the employee wants that he is not getting—better work conditions, a flexible schedule, the right to choose his coworkers or tasks. Is there any need or want you can tap into to give this employee more incentive to start working smarter, faster, and better?

Prepare for a Tough Conversation

Once you’ve diagnosed a persistent performance problem, you need to come up with a game plan for staging a purposeful intervention. This shouldn’t be a dreaded confrontation doomed to be a terrible experience—it might be an intervention, but it should be a positive one.

First, review your notes from previous one-on-one meetings. Make sure you have all the pertinent details: dates and times that the employee has failed to take specific actions to meet the expectations you’ve been setting every step of the way.

Second, consider your role in the employee’s performance problem. Are you confident you’ve done a thoughtful and thorough job of trying to help this person improve? Did you spell out expectations clearly every step of the way? Did you monitor and measure fairly and accurately every step of the way? Have you given this person every opportunity to improve? Have you documented all of this clearly every step of the way? Before you proceed, consult an ally in HR. Make sure you are following proper procedures before you have this performance intervention.

If you’ve discussed the problem with the employee in the past and have done everything in your power to help the employee correct the problem, the confrontation should not come as a surprise to your employee. But you still need to prepare thoroughly. Create a script so you stay on track during the conversation. Anticipate any excuses the employee typically offers you for failing to improve performance. You’ve probably heard them all by now. By preparing, you’ll be able to take a proactive approach to those excuses and address them before the person throws them at you again.

During the conversation, make sure you:

  • Clarify that you are meeting to discuss a problem.
  • Confront the employee in direct terms, letting her know that her failure to improve performance is unacceptable.
  • Present the facts as you’ve documented them; be as specific as you can.
  • Share a list of nonnegotiable action items that the person must complete within a specific schedule.
  • Establish that failing to resolve the performance problem, whatever that might be, will result in negative consequences for the employee.

Negative Consequences

If an employee fails to improve his performance despite your regular coaching and putting him on warning, at some point, you simply have to follow through. You have to start imposing real negative consequences. What negative consequences can you impose?

  • Stop going out of your way to help this employee meet her special needs and wants. Why should you go out of your way to take care of an employee who is chronically under-performing?
  • Take away one or more special rewards the employee may have earned because of past performance. If the employee is not performing well anymore, why should she continue to enjoy these rewards? Remind employees that rewards are not permanent, but contingent on continued good performance.
  • Use your discretion to punish the employee. For example, loss prevention managers have a lot of discretion when it comes to assigning tasks. As one US Army general put it to me once, “If a soldier has been dragging his heels all week, that soldier should have to clean the latrine next week. I always save the best duty assignments for the soldiers who are putting in the best effort and save the worst duty for the soldiers I want to punish a little.”

Beyond these negative consequences, the only place to go is letting the employee know that his job is on the line. This is not quite firing—yet. But warn the employee that if the performance problem is not corrected, he is in real imminent danger of being fired. Any wrong move on the part of the employee could be a ticket right out the door. Every time he makes a wrong move, you’ll have to consider two options—remove the person immediately or else give that person another chance.

Letting Someone Go

Firing someone is the ultimate punishment. Before letting someone go, you should consider giving the employee one last chance. Why? There are five reasons.

  • You’ve already invested time, energy, and money in this person. If you invest a little bit more, then you might actually get a return on that investment.
  • Depending on the situation, the employee in question, and your own feelings about him, you may want to go the extra mile for the individual.
  • If you turn a low performer around, you will save the organization and your team the costs of turnover. These include the costs of removing an employee, including exit benefits; the costs of recruiting and training a replacement; and the costs of downtime that result from removing a staff person.
  • In the event of any dispute that results from firing someone, your case might be stronger if you have given the employee one last chance to improve performance before terminating him.
  • Your company may require it.

But there are also lots of good reasons why, at some point, the last chances have to stop.

  • If the person is hopeless, the costs of turnover are actually a fiction. The primary costs of the bad hire have already been incurred. Continuing to employ the person is a greater cost than losing her.
  • You shouldn’t dedicate any more time, energy, and money to an employee you don’t believe will improve with time.
  • Depending on the situation and the person, giving the direct report one last chance may simply offer her a chance to bad-mouth you, the team, and the organization; a chance to do bad work and cause problems; and a chance to commit internal theft or sabotage.
  • If you’ve kept accurate written records of your management interactions with this person and her failure to perform, then you probably don’t need to give the person a last chance to strengthen your case. Your case is already strong.
  • Your company may require it.

Whether and when to fire an employee is always a tough decision. It’s a business decision you have to make. If you’ve monitored, measured, and documented her performance every step of the way, you will be in a much better position to make the right decision.

Fire Stubborn Low Performers

Sometimes managers tell me, “I really want to fire an employee, but we are understaffed, and everybody on our team is already overworked. I feel as if I cannot fire my low performers because then the remaining employees will have to work even harder.” These managers want to know, “Isn’t a fifty percent performance from a low performer sometimes better than having no employee in that role at all?”

My answer to that is N-O. No, no, no!

There are, however, times when it makes sense to hold on to a stubborn low performer for a little while longer. If you are super busy, you might as well squeeze one last day of grunt work out of the low performer. As my clients in the restaurant industry are fond of saying, “Never fire the dishwasher on Friday night!” That’s right. Have that low performer wash as many filthy dishes as you can get him to wash; all the worst pots and pans. Then fire him.

Choose your timing carefully. But you have to fire the low performers if they refuse to improve. Fifty percent of an employee is not better than zero. There are four reasons why you must fire stubborn low performers.

  • They get paid.
  • They cause problems that other employees have to fix.
  • High performers hate to work with low performers, and you can’t afford to lose your high performers.
  • Low performers send a terrible message to everybody else: “Low performance is an option around here.”

It shouldn’t be an option. If your team is overstaffed and overworked, then high performance is your only option. You have to be able to get more work and better work out of everyone. You cannot afford to have the negative energy and unnecessary problems of a stubborn low performer dragging down the rest of the team.

Firing an employee is one of the most unpleasant, scary things you’ll ever have to do as a loss prevention manager. But sometimes it has to be done. You owe it to yourself, your team, and your organization. This is the extreme end of consequences in the workplace, but without hard consequences for persistent failure, accountability is meaningless.

This post is based on chapter eight of Bruce Tulgan’s book It’s Okay to Be the Boss (HarperCollins, 2007). It was originally published in 2008 and was updated August 23, 2017. 

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