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Good employees gone bad: Why it happens and how to prevent it


Ah, the model employee. You know the type – they’re the first to volunteer when something needs doing and the last to complain if it means working a little late. But, what happens when good employees go bad?

Are your most reliable and efficient workers starting to miss deadlines or make mistakes on reports and client deliverables? Are they suddenly coming in late and leaving early? Has their accountability taken a dive? Has their once-positive attitude become negative, even to the point of creating a toxic environment?

As a business leader, it’s important to determine the cause of employee disengagement or ineffectiveness and address it properly. That means it’s time for some detective work when you begin to notice a good employee “going bad.”

Here’s how to identify what’s wrong and (hopefully) fix the situation.

Engage your inner sleuth

Rarely is an employee’s performance so egregious that you must react immediately. You almost always have the time to analyze the situation and look for underlying causes.

First, take a serious look inward before approaching the employee in question. Ask yourself: Am I overreacting to a one-time mistake? Was this a simple stumble? Are my expectations realistic?

Remember, we all make mistakes. Nobody is immune to the occasional bad week or the challenges that sometimes present themselves on a given day. Maybe a former star is struggling to learn some new aspect of their job, or maybe something has happened at home.

Next, take a look at past performance reviews to double-check whether your perceptions are correct. This type of documentation can help keep your expectations realistic as well as help you set the stage for any mid-year performance discussions.

If your design manager previously scored four out of five stars in communication, for example, and now they’re performing at more of a three-star level, maybe a little employee coaching is in order. It may not be that they’ve necessarily “gone bad” – maybe they’ve just hit a snag and could use some guidance on how to improve going forward.

After conducting your due diligence, if you find there’s truly a dramatic, longer-term difference in an employee’s demeanor and quality of work, there’s likely a reason behind it. Now, it’s time to dig even deeper.

Systems and processes – the most likely culprits

If it’s not a personal issue, it’s time to analyze what’s changed at work. Remember, if you put a good employee into a broken system, the system will drag the employee down every time.

Most often, you’ll find that something in the environment has changed – and it will usually involve a process, technology or the work group. Ask yourself:

  • Did job duties recently shift or expand?
  • Did you just finish implementing new technology or processes?
  • Could the person be overwhelmed by new or extra responsibilities?
  • Has a pessimistic coworker spread their negativity to the point that it’s impacting the entire office?
  • Are new company initiatives getting in the way of the employee’s work-life balance?
  • Has the pay structure changed in the last few weeks or months?
  • Have they outgrown the job and need new challenges?

Keep in mind that it’s easy to chalk up the problem to the people on your team. It’s much harder (and humbling) to realize that a system or process is at fault, particularly if that system or process is your brainchild.

For example, Samantha has been an exemplary employee for five years. As a result, she has consistently earned a substantial bonus each year. But, this year, your company changed the bonus structure. Suddenly, Samantha finds herself ineligible for a bonus, and there’s been no other change in her rate of pay to help make up the difference.

Let’s face it, such a change would leave any employee feeling underappreciated and unmotivated.

The solution in this case might be to help Samantha find another position in the company that is bonus-eligible. Or, maybe you could offer her a pay increase or some other incentive to help compensate for the fact that she no longer receives a bonus.

How to approach the employee

Don’t assume you know the answer to an employee’s decreasing performance. Set up a time to discuss the issues in private. The homework you did earlier will help shape this conversation.

Bring any facts and specific data available that demonstrate the performance issue you’ve spotted. You’ll need to provide examples of where performance has diminished. If you can’t find any examples, then you’re not ready to have this conversation.

Next, explain why their underperformance or rule-breaking is a problem. You may need to explain the impact of a business process being done properly, or how their behavior is affecting the team.

It’s important to remind yourself that you may not know everything that may be impacting your employee’s performance or causing their productivity to suffer. It could be a constellation of issues. Perhaps an error-prone process has completely fallen apart because new technology was implemented without sufficient training. On top of that, what if the employee’s new baby was born with a condition that requires frequent doctor’s appointments?

Listen deeply to what the employee is telling you, and be realistic about what you can and can’t do to resolve any issues. Don’t expect the employee to do all the work. You must also be willing to genuinely help the employee find an answer to their performance problem.

Regardless of the causes of performance issues, it’s vital you and the employee face the problem quickly and try to find a workable solution.

For instance, say Dylan is having to work extended hours to get everything done for his job, and a life change makes it impossible for him to put in consistent overtime. After talking to him, you may come to the conclusion that Dylan’s workload is unreasonable and you need to redistribute some of his work to someone else (or hire someone to help him). Another solution might be transitioning him into a role that is less demanding, or allowing him to work from home on certain days.

Whatever you decide, the sooner you address the issue and discuss potential solutions, the more able you’ll be to correct things before they become a bigger problem.

Beyond the paycheck

Finally, never assume that their paycheck is enough. Monetary compensation is never enough, and the worst thing you can ever say to a valued employee is “You get a paycheck, don’t you?” or “Isn’t that what you’re paid to do?”

If you’ve been piling it on your star performers, assuming they’ll always be there to handle whatever you dish out, think again. Even the best employee can only do so much. When you see those go-to people losing steam, it may be time to recognize and reward your employees a little more. That may mean giving them a break, an easy assignment, a promotion or some other incentive, or maybe even a raise.

To stay motivated, your workers need to feel valued. They also need a proper balance of challenging work that’s not overly difficult, with some ebb and flow to account for busy and slow times. As a business leader, it’s wise to figure out when to give a public “good job” at the next staff meeting or hand out a gift certificate.

You can also help your workforce feel empowered, challenged and motivated by providing them with opportunities to continue to grow and learn about the business. Consider partnering with leaders in other departments to develop a mentoring or job shadowing initiative that benefits both managers and employees company-wide.

Looking for more tips to keep productivity and employee morale high? Download the e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.