He's the employee from heaven AND from hell.
August 28, 2008 6:45 AM   Subscribe

One of the folks on my payroll is somehow both the best and worst employee ever. How can I better manage his occasionally bad attitude in order to make my life and the lives of the other employees less traumatic?

Prologue: I am the owner and general manager of a small business. We employ less than 10 people, and only half of the employees are full time. Our business is part retail sales and part service. The service side of things involves both set-up before a retail unit is sold as well as post purchase maintenance and upgrades. The retail and service areas are in the same building, but are not in contiguous spaces. My office and the retail area are on one side. The service space is on the other side.

The head of the service side of my business is amazing at what he does. He fixes the unfixable. He keeps the place sparkling clean. He trains current employees and new ones on technical matters large and small. He understands our product inside and out, which means that we can help customers more efficiently and with a higher standard than any other biz doing similar stuff. While I wouldn't say he is irreplaceable, it would be incredibly difficult to do so, especially since we're having our busiest year on record by leaps and bounds.

There is of course another side to this story.

Meeting deadlines can sometimes be very difficult for him. He's a perfectionist, which sometimes leads to him having what I can only describe as separation anxiety--he really doesn't like to declare a long-term project finished, ever. A long-term service project can mean a 6 month wait or a 2+ year wait, so the customer is usually MORE than antsy...and then he simply doesn't finish. Any time he does take a little time to focus on the final details, he becomes immediately frustrated with some tiny detail and then stalls doing any further work on the project. Generally the customer ends up demanding his stuff back, whether it is fixed or not, whether it is finished or not. The thing is that my employee does such an amazing job with the fixing that the customer should be actually ecstatic about how awesome his stuff, and instead the customer is pissed because he had to basically wrestle his stuff away from my service department head. This is unacceptable for the business. We should be able to say "Talk to this customer and he'll tell you about the incredible custom work we did for him", and instead I'm too busy trying to make the customer feel like we weren't slacking off on his project.

The obvious solution to the above problem is for me as the GM to set more specific and reachable deadlines for small goals within the larger project. This works when he is in a decent headspace. But if he's already gotten himself in a crap mood, the additional stress caused by the deadline will make matters worse in terms of his productivity, not better. In addition, my work load makes it difficult for me to have the time available to constantly micromanage his individual work load.

We have procedures set up for taking in service jobs, scheduling services, talking to customers, etc etc. One of the pros of this business of this size is that we can change those processes whenever we feel that there is a better way to do things. We experience a problem and we find a possible solution, and then we try it out and make adjustments as necessary. However, this employee takes both sides of that equation to an extreme in order to explain his bad behavior. He makes constant changes to what is acceptable, so it's tough for an employee to know what to do and for a customer to know to expect. He'll also be extremely stubborn about a process that doesn't work, not wanting to change it *just because*.

I'm not good at being a hardass boss, but these problems are only getting worse and I need to do something. Other employees are reluctant to talk to him because they are concerned that he'll react poorly and have a tantrum. Obviously I can't let customers talk to him. Sometimes it goes incredibly well, but it can just as easily end up impossibly bad.

Any assistance would be greatly appreciated! If you have questions, send them to tangerineseeds@gmail.com. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
The obvious solution to the above problem is for me as the GM to set more specific and reachable deadlines for small goals within the larger project. This works when he is in a decent headspace. But if he's already gotten himself in a crap mood, the additional stress caused by the deadline will make matters worse in terms of his productivity, not better.

The only reason you've mentioned for hitting deadlines is to increase customer satisfaction. If that is the only factor, why not focus on it directly? For each customer, create a "report card" that allows them to assign your company as a whole grades in certain categories. Make sure that "timeliness of delivery" is one of the categories. Have them fill it out every quarter and at the end of projects. That way if delays really are a big pain point for the customers, you will have objective proof.

The other good thing about doing it that way is that there is no blame on this particular employee. Instead, your focus is making your customers more happy in general, which everyone should agree is a good idea.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:01 AM on August 28, 2008


how about having this employee work in a team (one more person or two) so that he can ideate the solution and get the process going, but the other member(s) of the team take care of final delivery to the client (with oversight from the service manager)?

Then you leverage the qualities of your service manager, and you can deliver the product to your customers on time because *that* part is done by other people who are willing to let go of the product and are less perfectionistic.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:11 AM on August 28, 2008


Maybe you can decide to put in the extra hours of finding someone ( Part-time ) personable and tech savvy enough to act as a liason between the business and your customers, while knocking Two-Face down a peg. This will alleviate Two-Face's workload and give him incentive to adapt and change his inefficient ways, lest he lose his hours. The payroll pinch isn't so bad considering the amount of business you would lose and bad reputation for service.
posted by Student of Man at 7:18 AM on August 28, 2008


I agree with seawallrunner - can you promote him to a director role so that he is there to train and oversee the actual hands on people and consult with them when they hit snags but otherwise is not directly responsible for meeting deadlines? Or is this so far out of his skill set that he would become bored, ineffective, etc and thus worse?
posted by spicynuts at 7:19 AM on August 28, 2008


I'm with seawallrunner - but rather than putting the employee on a team, which might cause them even more stress if they are a perfectionist - why not start a "finishing group." This group would be responsible for putting the bow on the project. Anytime you want to pry the project away from your employee, just tell them "I'm sending this to the finishing team, because I have something more important for you to do right now...."
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:20 AM on August 28, 2008


I'm not good at being a hardass boss, but these problems are only getting worse and I need to do something. Other employees are reluctant to talk to him because they are concerned that he'll react poorly and have a tantrum.

So you've got a company full of conflict-avoiders except for this guy. Which means he's really running the show. Why can't you be the final arbiter on when the project is done? You give him three months to complete the project, then inspect at that point. It sounds like he's always going to find some tiny detail over which to obsess. If you're the boss, you can put your stamp of approval on the product and it's good to go to the customer. If there really is more that needs fixing, you can re-set the deadline. Better yet, if someone else can finish it up, give it to them to do and tell Mr. Hothead that you wanted to lighten his load because he's obviously too busy to finish projects on deadline (OK, a little nicer than that).
posted by desjardins at 7:25 AM on August 28, 2008 [5 favorites]


No one is irreplaceable. Ever. This person does not sound fixable. His mood swings and inability to finish projects outweigh any hard skills he has.

That said, I think you need to lay this out for him, preferably when he is in one of his good moods. "X, there is no question about the quality of your work. The issue is that your combative nature and inabilty to meet deadlines make you hard to work with, and are directly impacting our bottom line. All of this is in your own power to fix, X."

Then, set up a review schedule to monitor his progress towards the changes he needs to make. If he has any more episodes, well, then he is making the choice to move on.
posted by Futurehouse at 7:45 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Are you having weekly review meetings? So that he's accountable in public on a short term basis? With the whole staff?
posted by DarlingBri at 8:01 AM on August 28, 2008


Disclaimer: IANAD or a Shrink.

That said, it sounds like this guy might have some undiagnosed ADD issues. If you want to keep him because of his positive contributions, then it would be worth your while to do a little reading about ADD in the workplace and how some small changes to the way he is managed could benefit you, him, and the company. Start with the Hallowell books for some basic "what it's like" descriptions that may click for you and then go from there if you want more info. These are pretty standard public library selections so they are easy to find.

I know this might be a loaded answer ripe for flaming and I am by no means trying to long-distance diagnose someone, but it is something to consider as a possibility. Your approach to this all depends on your particular view of the world vis a vis management/employee-employer relations, but if you've got a smaller shop and you obviously care enough to post the issue for more input here, you may be ahead even from a financial perspective to look into this possibility a little more rather than go through the loss of productivity you'd experience if you got rid of him and had to retrain someone else anew.
posted by webhund at 8:07 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


You do need to be a 'mean' boss and make it clear that learning what is 'good enough' skill is indeed a requirement of the job.

However, also realize that his strengths and weaknesses are in some ways connected. He's a person that can take apart and run through and throughly understand technical details and processes. So if he's in an environment where services/processes are changing all the time, he may spend too much time trying to analyze those processes. He also seems to like to test the limits of a rule/process (you need to emphasize that this is not acceptable -- he may be used to getting away with this because he's smart).

Give him a set of general rules about what's good enough. If that's not possible, request a written log of his concerns/progress. It may help him to see where he's getting stuck. It also makes it easier to hand-it off to someone else.
posted by ejaned8 at 8:11 AM on August 28, 2008


He's a perfectionist, huh?

He's only going to obsess about his own work responsibilities. So if he's "stuck" in a perfectionist loop, you take responsibility: "I think this is as fine as we're going to get this, I think it's great work, I'll take responsibility for signing off on it."

It's the perfect out for him, and will probably be a relief to him, especially if you can immediately direct him to a different and more absorbing task.
posted by orthogonality at 8:14 AM on August 28, 2008 [4 favorites]


ejaned8 writes "If that's not possible, request a written log of his concerns/progress. It may help him to see where he's getting stuck. It also makes it easier to hand-it off to someone else."

He's a perfectionist. What do you expect he'll do with that written log? (Hint: no one else will see it until it's perfect, or he'll be additionally stressed he had to give it to someone else in an imperfect state.)
posted by orthogonality at 8:17 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


yes, agree, was thinking of it more as part of a sign-off log on his concerns. bad wording.
posted by ejaned8 at 8:23 AM on August 28, 2008


It would be interesting to know exactly what business you're in—sounds like it's restoring intricate mechanical devices or something.

I don't have experience directly with this, but there are a number of crafts that are prone to a similar problem: endless tinkering. Graphic designers, software coders, and so on can always keep polishing their work—software is never finished—but someone has to say "This is our deadline. Ship it." In this case, that someone is you.

You could probably both put your customers a little more at ease and hold your best/worst employee to a schedule if you wrote a detailed checklist of the work to be done at the beginning of the project and gave that to the customer for their sign-off (for all I know, you are doing that now). You will then hold your staff to that checklist. You can update the customer whenever an item gets checked off, so they'll know you're not sitting on your thumbs. And if your best/worst employee discovers some new issue to obsess over, well, that's a new checklist item that needs to be approved by the customer. And he doesn't get to uncheck items.

Doing this should also make it a little easier to predict the amount of time required for new jobs.
posted by adamrice at 8:34 AM on August 28, 2008


One trick may be to ask him to show/explain his project to another service employee (in the guise of training since it seems to be a comfort zone) when it's near completion/deadline. Doing that may take him out of his perspective/headspace. More informal finishing group of a sort.
posted by ejaned8 at 8:38 AM on August 28, 2008


So you've got a company full of conflict-avoiders except for this guy. Which means he's really running the show.

Just want to second this. I've been in situations like this, and it sucks for the employees that are acting right. A boss who enables problems like this is, bluntly, being a poor boss and making work unpleasant for everyone BUT the problem person. People end up bitter not only about his crappy behavior, but about the lack of fairness and justice in the workplace.

It has nothing to do with "mean" - you need to be a good boss to your other employees, or you will eventually lose them. You are the only one with the authority to stand up to him, and if you take your job seriously you are obligated to do so. Take any of the measures above, up to and including firing him if necessary. You can't let one person destroy your team.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:27 AM on August 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sounds like you've got a 'big picture' guy, he needs a 'details' guy to hand the project off to for finishing touches.
I have the same problem with my own projects, I'm really enthusiastic at the start, do 90%+ of the project in no time at all but I just can't bring myself to do the finishing touches and when I do I decide its crap and give up.

I'm ok with my clients but I think thats largely because if I don't get it done then I don't get paid but I doubt you can withhold his pay until he's finished ;)
posted by missmagenta at 9:48 AM on August 28, 2008


I've had another thought on this issue. I used to be a lot like your employee, and I still have anxiety with finishing projects, though I am 10,000 times better than I used to be. I've found that it really is an anxiety issue for when it comes to wrapping things up projects - is it possible that you're giving the guy too much to do? It sounds like you have a business where people "wear many hats," and it might be that if he had less on his plate, he might be calmer and would stop having power/security issues with his big projects.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:49 AM on August 28, 2008


He's not worth the trouble--for you or your other employees.
You need to read this book.
The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Robert I. Sutton.

http://www.amazon.com/Asshole-Rule-Civilized-Workplace-Surviving/dp/0446526568/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219942261&sr=8-2
posted by Toto_tot at 9:54 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Other employees are reluctant to talk to him because they are concerned that he'll react poorly and have a tantrum.

I suspect this affecting your other staff a lot more than you know. Your bully looks irreplaceable because with him around, everybody else is so stressed that they aren't achieving anything like their real potential.

I also suspect that this guy is not really happy in his job anyway. Let him go.
posted by tomcooke at 11:06 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Trying to resolve this situation by means of a process fix without addressing his tantrums and bad behavior will not work. This guy needs to get that his responses to anxiety and stress are not working, to the point that they are outweighing his many sterling virtues in your mind and endangering his tenure with the company.

He needs help, possibly from a good organizational development/human resource consultant, in developing new strategies for managing his stress and perfectionism, and in practicing new behaviors. He also needs a chance to collaborate in any process changes needed to address the customer service issues you describe.

From what you describe, it seems like he's worth the time and expense it will take for him to turn these patterns around. If you don't feel willing to invest in this kind of program of improvement, you should cut him loose.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:37 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Tantrums? Do you run a day care?

Pitch him.

How great could he be, considering the end result of his work is a pissed-off customer?
posted by sondrialiac at 3:58 PM on August 28, 2008


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