Sometimes employees make mistakes that can cause us to just shake our head. I’ve seen a lot of unbelievable employee mistakes in my 40 years of contractor consulting. Let’s see — there was the demolition contractor whose foreman tore down the wrong house, or the worker who decided to relieve himself behind a bush in front of a camouflaged one-way window. 

Fortunately, most employees use better judgment, but how do you evaluate poor performance? The guidelines might be simpler than you think.

Identify the fundamental cause of the problem. Is it a competency, skill issue, attitude issue? This may take a little more perception and insight than you might first perceive. Let’s start with some definitions.

• Skill problem: Employee does not know how to do it.   

• Attitude problem:  Employee does not want to do it.  

• Competency issue: Employee cannot do it.

To help you get to the root of the problem, ask questions like: “If this person was paid a million dollars, could they do it?” “Is this a new behavior?” “Is this just a ‘me and them’ issue?” “Is this costing the company money?” “Is this behavior fair to others?” 

Frequently, skill problems may at first appear like an attitude problem. Some employees will not ask for help due to pride or the fear of looking stupid. This is particularly true with educational issues that might impair something, like the ability to do paperwork. Rather than say, “I don’t know how to fill out this form,” you might hear, “This is a bunch of bunk, I’m a craftsperson, not a secretary.” When confronting issues such as improving paperwork, coach people one on one rather than in a group. Understand potential limitations. Work hard to help people but not embarrass them in front of their peers. For example, it is estimated that 10% of the U.S. population has dyslexia. Don’t assume it’s easy for the individual, as he or she may be trying, but have a learning disability.

I laughed when one of our painting contractor customers complained that no one could hang wallpaper as fast as Ralph. It never occurred to him that Ralph was 6 feet 7 inches, and in many circumstances, did not need a step ladder. I would love to play center in the NBA, but no matter how hard I practice, I am never going to be tall enough. While it may not be popular to face this reality, some of us have limitations. Promoting people beyond their ability can lead to the loss of a good person. 

Where this becomes very evident in the contracting business is when there is a job to be supervised but no foreman is available. So, the contractor looks around and promotes the least risky candidate. Some work out, some don’t. If someone is promoted and cannot do the job, demote him or her gracefully. Make public that you need them back on the tools to help with production. Give his or her ego an out.

Now let’s move on to attitude problems. Attitude problems tend to fall into two categories: short term and long term. Anyone can have a bad day or temporary struggle in his or her life. Bad marriage, a kid on drugs, or death of a relative are examples of issues that can dramatically impact people. When confronted with a short-term attitude situation, try to work with the people. Sometimes a leave of absence to give the individual time to work things out can help. Show empathy, but do not let things drag on too long. People need leaders and guidance, not just a shoulder to cry on. Personal problems can destroy employee performance, but personal problems can also motivate performance. Everyone needs to win some of the time. It is not uncommon to have great performing employees who have an awful personal life. Be empathetic, but insist on work performance in a kind but firm manner. They need your help to keep them on the straight and narrow, not your sympathy.

Long-term attitude problems tend to be ingrained in people and can be exceedingly difficult to change. Ultimately, people with a long-term attitude will probably be dismissed. However, let’s objectively explore the negative and positive impacts of a strong personality. Just because someone is difficult to get along with does not mean they should be dismissed. If the employee fails to make budget or exhibits poor workmanship, he or she needs to be let go. Yet some of our best craftspeople tend to be temperamental or prima donnas. Managing them may make more sense than firing them. Isolation can go a long way in corralling bad attitudes. You can’t be a complainer if there is no one to complain to. Do not let your ego get in the way. Let them make you money and quit trying to change them. Rarely do difficult people change — manage them instead. Good strategies can be to isolate, feed his or her ego, and as last resort, fire them with honor. 

People are all different and come to us with varying complications. No matter how frustrating that may seem, it is so very true. Terminating everyone is certainly not a reality, but choosing to ignore the situation is not a solution. Leadership requires us to influence those around us and to evaluate each employee situation and adapt accordingly.