Beth Barrow

Dear Gabby,

Ed, a writer in my group, went on leave, and I was left to manage his projects until I could find a temporary replacement. Once he left, his project teams started bringing up problems with his performance that I hadn’t been aware of before. I learned that he’d been ignoring new projects and that the project teams felt that the deadlines for his in-flight projects were not clear. He was also perceived to have a very negative attitude. I discovered quickly that his project teams were very dissatisfied with his performance and were now taking out their frustrations on the rest of the group.

I knew that Ed was having some personal problems, but I had no idea that they were impacting his productivity or other teams’ perceptions of my group. My management is pushing aggressive performance management when he returns, but I’m not sure that I want to have him come back to such a negative reaction.

What do you suggest I do?
Perplexed in Pennsylvania

Dear Perplexed,

What makes this situation difficult
You cannot talk to Ed directly. Without Ed’s side of the story, you might not have the entire picture. Once he returns, you will be able to piece together the entire story and determine what action is appropriate.
The team is impacted. Your group now resents Ed for mishandling his workload. Pinch-hitting for a teammate is one thing, but cleaning up after them is another.
Management has already weighed in. Due to the visibility level, you cannot soft-hand this issue. You need to take some sort of action to prevent setting Ed up for failure when he shows his human side next time (which all of us do).
Immediate actions
Refocus your team now. Talk to your human resources rep and determine exactly how much you can say to your team. HR can help you script a message that lets your team know that you are addressing the situation without giving too many details. Do whatever it takes to get them focused on the work instead of on Ed.
Communicate to management that you are addressing the issue. Again, HR can help here. No need to list details. Just let them know that you are working with HR.
Create a plan. Gather resources (HR, employee assistance program, health services) to help Ed re-enter the workforce. The more organized you are, the smoother the re-entry will go.
Long-term actions
Be honest. When Ed returns to work, he needs to know that his teammates and management aren’t very happy with him. (Again, HR can help you with this.) Explain that immediate changes are necessary. Make sure that he understands that the group perception will lag three to six months after he makes the change.
Let him own the issue. Give him an opportunity to repair relationships and make him accountable for correcting the performance issues. For Ed to succeed, he has to first eliminate the resentment. Coach him on not explaining or defending his previous actions. He needs to focus on making amends and changing behaviors.
Determine performance actions. How hard should we play this? Remember the three options that we gave you?

                1. Start a performance improvement plan as soon as the person returns to work.
2. Look at the job match and tweak his responsibilities accordingly.
3. Coach him on what happened while he was away and let him resume his

Just coaching will hurt both Ed and you. It doesn’t put enough emphasis on the need for immediate change. So, that definitely rules out option 3.

Depending on Ed’s demeanor and response, either option 1 or 2 could be appropriate. It’s all right to go with option 2 if Ed is really ready to change. However, be on the lookout for defensiveness or attitude. If you notice either one, you’ll need to use some “tough love” and go with option 1.