Sunday, May 13, 2012

Giving hope to hopeless employees

"Some people are hopeless cases."

That's what a reader wrote me after recounting his efforts to provide assistance to a young employee.

The reader was the boss of a "rather brash" young employee who fancied himself a good writer. Part of the young man's job was to write quite a few memos for my reader. But each time he wrote one, his boss found himself having to do a rewrite.

After months of the young man not showing any improvement, his boss spent a good deal of his personal time wrestling with how he might help him improve.

"Without making any specific edits, I wrote down general suggestions about a memo he wrote," my reader says. "I gave him a list of things to consider - his tone, the position of the intended recipient, the need to avoid repetition of superfluous information and run-on sentences, and so on." It was, the reader recalls, a pretty long list.

The morning after giving him the list, the reader called the young man into his office. He asked him to take another look at the memo he had written in light of the list his boss had given him.

"He was back in my office in maybe two minutes, handed me the memo back, looked me in the eye, and said, 'I wouldn't change a word of it.'"

At this point, my reader arrived at his conclusion that "some people are hopeless cases."

One question raised by the incident is whether it's OK to make such broad assumptions and give up on someone as being untrainable. But a larger question is if it is fair to expect that the young man should have understood his boss's intentions if the boss didn't take the time to be more specific about his concerns.

The boss did go out of his way to try to guide his employee, but assuming that the young man could deduce from the extrapolated list what he should do with his own writing may not have been a particularly effective method. It assumes that the young man will be able to see that what the boss outlines on his list reflects problems with his own writing. The hope is that the young man would have caught on and transformed his writing.

But hope is not a particularly reliable teaching or training method. Different approaches work for different people.

Perhaps if the boss had been more direct with the employee and gone over the specifics of what was not working on the memos he wrote, the message would have sunken in more clearly. Perhaps it was those "specific edits" that my reader decided not to include that would have been precisely the technique that worked. After all, the young man was writing memos for his boss, so it was more than reasonable that the boss should have those memos reflect a style he preferred.

The right thing then is not to immediately cast off as hopeless that which doesn't change instantly based on our instruction. Instead, explore different methods to see which one works the best. If, after several attempts, the performance fails to improve then it's reasonable to decide that the employee is not the right fit for the job and to perhaps do a more thorough job screening for his replacement.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, unless we are assuming the writer (the boss of the idiot writer!) has completely misread the circumstances of his employee's work, from the description of both the employee's original memo and his subsequent smartass reply and we can't do that, without question, the boss handled this right. There simply are people you can't help. In fact, the employee was daring his boss to judge him. Who would want an employee who had the effrontery to as much as equate the boss's judgement with his own?

Anonymous said...

But the Reader can help the situation by kicking back each memo with critiques and making the writer correct them. My crew is always being sent back their emails and I ask 'Which property?' or 'What are you asking them to do' Usually after being corrected 200-300 times it starts to sink in ;)

William Jacobson, Anaheim, CA said...

This does not appear to be an ethics question as much as a management question.

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

A reader we're calling Josh, owns a pickup truck. Josh seems a good enough fellow, indicating that in addition to using his truck as...