The View from HR

The right process is key when dealing with employee problems

January 12, 2013 

Most employee problems can be resolved in a very short time. Yes, even the stickiest, longest-ignored, mishandled messes.

No process always works, but this one comes very close. Call it “The Box.” The Box has four sides with only two doors out: success and failure. Boxes do not work when there are other ways out, such as excuses, vagueness or short-lived improvements.

Take this example: Sophie has good qualities but she causes serious problems within her team. Sophie has not listened to the manager’s hints requesting improvement. She believes it is “their fault.”

Her manager is frustrated with the complaints he gets about Sophie shutting down the team. He also sees her completing work at the last minute, preventing meaningful input by others.

This is a classic example of someone not bad enough to fire but not good enough to leave alone. Too often managers choose to ignore problems because they are unsure where to start.

The Box is little more than a straightforward conversation, a set of written expectations and continued check-ins to gauge progress. Either the employee shows continued and acceptable progress toward the important benchmarks, or they leave. Success or failure comes in a defined time frame.

A less formal approach

Sometimes The Box is called a Performance Improvement Plan. More often, The Box is shorter term, covers fewer issues and is less formal.

The Box for Sophie might look like this: “Sophie, you are a great technician. But a serious set of problems outweigh your technical value to this company, and if not resolved, will lead to your termination. I’m here to help you overcome it and to monitor your progress. It is a problem with your teamwork.

“For example, in team meetings, you shut other people down with the words and tone you use. Rather than question an idea, you call it the ‘dumbest thing I have ever heard.’ Eye rolling, head shaking and turning your chair around complete the picture. People do not want to work or talk with you.

“Your own work is good but usually last minute, leaving the team no time for review. Your overall teamwork and contribution must improve for you to be effective. I require immediate and consistent improvement in your total contribution to the team’s processes and success, and here is how I will help.

Working toward success

“You and I will meet after each team session and discuss your progress until I see you are successful, or it is clear to me you cannot or do not want to meet this need. I am here as your coach. We will help you with internal and outside resources on teamwork. But it is up to you to produce a change in behaviors.”

Employees who see The Box coming should work to fully understand the problem and openly discuss any help needed to improve. Make sure your manager understands important facts. Avoid excuses. Work toward a reasonable definition of success.

Yes, this is very basic stuff. That is why it works. Wrap your next employee problem up in a box.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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