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Locking Horns With A Know-Nothing Employee

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Know-it-all employees can be a pain, but on the other end of the spectrum, know-nothings can be just as bad. Take an apprentice like Fred, for example. He got the job by meeting the minimum standards and that’s all he cares about. He wants a paycheck, but he doesn’t want more responsibility because, with responsibility comes blame if things go wrong. Of course, that’s not what you had in mind when you hired him. What you really want is to turn Fred into a productive worker, but people don’t generally change their personalities without powerful motivation.

Jack Kelso is a master journeyman with a leading HVAC company in far northern California. When he’s had guys like Fred on his crew – guys who don’t want to grow or to think outside the box – he reassigns them when possible. “I try to keep these guys on the tasks they do best, rather than putting them where they can’t perform.” But he also lets underachievers know if they don’t step it up, they’ll probably be stuck at this level of achievement and therefore pay, forever.

If a know-nothing like Fred raises your hackles, give yourself a chance to cool down and then take him aside and explain your concerns. Let him vent a little if necessary, but make it clear that no employer hires a worker hoping that he’ll remain at the same level, barely doing enough to hang onto his job. Your plan was for him to build on his skills and become a more valuable employee. Describe where he is compared to where you want him to be.

Show Him the Gap
“Here’s where you are, Fred. You’ve been here two years, and you’re pretty much where you were when I hired you. Now, here’s where I need you to be, at this level of performance.”

List specific areas where he needs to improve, and, give him a time frame. It’s your company and you know better than anyone what a good employee looks like, so lay it out for him.

“I need to see improvement, but I’m willing to work with you as long as I see progress. Here are several things you can work on. Let’s talk again in three weeks to see what’s changed.”

Two Choices: Forward or Back
Suppose Fred indicates he’s not willing to do more. Then, ask him what his plan is. You’ve defined what you need from him, broken it down into concrete actions, and given him time to work on it. You can’t make it much clearer than that. If he doesn’t agree to improve or agrees, but doesn’t follow through, you might take one last stab at keeping him onboard.

“Fred, everyone here likes you. I hope you’ll stay. I hired you because I saw potential in you. There’s a lot of opportunity here and guys with tons of experience who can teach you skills that will make you more valuable to us and to yourself in the future. You need to either step it up and rise to the next level, or you’re never going to do anything but maintenance type work, here or somewhere else. Take the weekend and think it through, then let me know what you decide.”

If your know-nothing employee shows no inclination to improve, be sure to keep a file of all conversations you have with him on the subject, and any incidents that show unwillingness to improve. Let him know a file is being kept. He may think he is secure as long as he does the minimum, but he needs to be reminded that you didn’t hire him to stagnate and if that’s what he plans to do, it may affect his future employment with you.

Teresa Ambord

Posted In: Management

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