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Got a toxic team member? Here’s how to deal

July 21, 2010

  Dear Rebecca,

I supervise a great team...except for Janice (not her real name.) She’s a complete pain in the ass, and her attitude is like poison in our team. She always has an excuse for why she can’t get projects done, and always blames others - never herself - for why her work papers aren’t accurate. I’m at my wits end. Should I fire her?

Frustrated But Not Sure About Firing

Dear Frustrated,

A good manager probably would fire her, but a great manager would give her a chance to improve. I’ve met hundreds of Janices in my life: they’re full of excuses...and they’ll keep using excuses UNTIL THEIR EXCUSES DON’T WORK ANYMORE.

Here’s what I would do:

1.    Document. Think back over the last couple of weeks. In as much detail as possible, write down what you observed: when Janice gave excuses, for what, to whom, how it impacted you or the team, etc.
2.    When you have two or three of these instances documented, ask Janice to meet in a private location, e.g. your office, for 30 minutes during the work day. If she makes an excuse as to why she can’t meet, reinforce that this is a critical meeting and it’s not optional.
3.    At the start of the meeting, present your evidence. Say something like, “Janice, the reason I asked to meet with you today is because I’ve noticed a pattern of behavior that’s having a negative impact on me, our team, and our clients.” Then, show her a copy of your documentation and give a brief explanation of your notes.
4.    Give her a moment to review it. Then ask, “Janice, there’s a real pattern of excuse-making here. What’s going on?”
5.    Shut up and listen. It’s possible that something is REALLY going on behind the scenes that’s impacting Janice’s work, e.g. a divorce, at-home stress, a coworker she detests. It’s also possible that she’s never noticed this behavior before - or she’s been able to dodge taking responsibility. Either way...
6.    Remind Janice that she’s responsible for her behavior at work, and making a positive (not negative) contribution to the team. Ask her what she will do to change this pattern of excuse-making. If she can’t come up with any ideas, offer your suggestions.
7.    As the meeting closes, tell Janice that you’ll be documenting the ways she’s agreed to improve, and that you must have her cooperation.
8.    Follow up. If Janice starts making more excuses, immediately call her aside and note her behavior, and ask her how she will do better. If she can’t improve, you must let her go.

I’ve found that in many, many cases, people like Janice CAN improve. They just need a steady, consistent manager who can steer them towards more appropriate and professional behavior.

Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

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