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Warning Signs

Know what to look for in a failing employee and the steps to avoid failure.

By Kirk J. Hulett

Your practice may be in danger because of an employee who is failing on the job.

The cost of a failing employee to your business is steep and can run into thousands of dollars. You have to pay for advertisements to attract replacement candidates, take time away from making money to review resumes, conduct interviews and then train the new hire. This cost does not include the knowledge, experience and client relationships that walk out the door when you lose an employee. In addition, there is an opportunity cost to losing talented people in whom you have already invested time and money.

Recognize the signs
If you learn to recognize the warning signs of a failing employee, you can take proactive steps to prevent the failure in the first place.

Warning sign No. 1: Missing in action
Like theatre patrons, employees vote with their feet. If an employee’s attendance becomes spotty, this should be a reason for concern. Attendance issues include arriving to work late, leaving early, taking longer than allowed lunches or breaks or calling in sick for the day.

When analyzing your employee’s attendance record for warning signs, you’ll want to differentiate between “excused” and “unexcused” absences. Excused absences are planned or occur when notice is given in advance. For example, being late because of a scheduled dentist appointment is an excused absence. Unexcused absences are unplanned and happen without notice. Calling in sick for a day would be an unexcused absence. However, not all unexcused absences are a source of concern. Everyone gets sick or has a sick child who needs care.

A pattern of unexcused absences is problematic. An employee who has more than three unexcused absences in a three-month period is a failing employee. When counting absences, count both unexcused absences and tardiness. Also, count instances instead of actual days. For example, if an employee calls in sick for two consecutive days, this must be counted as one unexcused incident, not two.

Warning sign No. 2: Bad attitude
A bad attitude is hard to define, but you definitely know it when you see it.

The list of people with bad attitudes—in both word and action—is unending. You have your whiners and constant complainers who find fault in all good things. Moody employees have emotional states that ebb and flow. The worst offenders are the “passive-aggressive” people, who put on a happy face in public and foster negativity in private. Bad attitudes are infectious. Over time, one bad attitude will spread like a contagion through your practice.

Your challenge is to determine if the bad attitude is congenital or situational. A congenital bad attitude is ingrained in an employee. You will not cure it; just set guidelines in the workplace to limit its negative influence. A situational bad attitude, however, is a warning sign to which you can respond. You must diagnose what it is about the person, the job or the work environment that is causing the bad attitude. The best way to do this is through an open, constructive dialogue with the individual. This type of conversation requires a lot of trust, and the employee must feel safe to share his feedback with you. But the result—lifting the cloud of negativity from the person and the workplace—is well worth the effort.

Warning sign No. 3: Paralysis
Many people have no tolerance for risk because they usually have an acute fear of failure. When one of your employees suffers from this malady, it creates a Catch 22. The employee is scared into inaction because of fear of failure, which, in turn, sets him up for failure. This manifests itself in a variety of ways in the workplace. For example, the employee is often reluctant to learn new things, such as new technology, because it takes him outside the comfort zone of his previously learned habits.

An employee can have a mental paralysis if he is faced with a new or unique problem. He will freeze up and immediately seek assistance, regardless of the size and seriousness of the problem. Continuous procrastination is the most easily noticed warning sign of employee paralysis. Failure to meet deadlines or complete work in a timely manner may not be due just to poor time management skills; it may also be a result of the person’s reluctance to tackle a risky or new task.

Warning sign No. 4: Sudden change
Sudden changes in employee performance—like attendance, attitude and timeliness—are warning signs that should not be ignored. A surprising decline in the quality of a person’s work—for example, more errors—is a warning sign. A significant reduction in the quantity of work is another indication of failure. If an employee previously made 50 prospecting calls a day and that number suddenly drops to 10 per day, there may be a problem (or a bad prospecting list).

Preventing failure
There are several steps you can take to prevent failure among your employees.

Set clear expectations: Make sure employees know what is expected of them, what their job duties are and how their performance will be evaluated. Make sure you lead by example.

Communication: Build trusting relationships with your staff. This will enable clear and open communication about workplace issues. Provide constructive feedback when needed, both positive and negative. Confront and resolve performance issues as soon as they occur.

Training: Ensure your employees have proper training on all aspects of their job. Make sure the staff has all the knowledge, tools and equipment they need to be successful.

Flexibility between work and home: Don’t force an employee to choose between work and family. Instead, find a win-win solution that provides flexibility between the needs and requirements of the job and the pressures from home.

Kirk J. Hulett is vice president of human resources and practice management at Securities America Financial Corp., Omaha, Neb. You can reach him at khulett@saionline.com.

 


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