How to Kill Staff Morale and Waste Money Too

I was not surprised to read online that, according to a new study by Leadership IQ, 87% of employees say that working with a low performer has made them want to change jobs. The study also found that 93% of employees say that working with a low performer has decreased their productivity. Yet, only 14% of senior executives say their company effectively manages low performers. And only 17% of middle managers say they feel comfortable improving or removing low performers.

I have often stated that I have rarely heard a statement from someone indicating that they fired someone too quickly. Rather, they usually question aloud why they waited so long, and put up with so much.

Legal administrators seem to have better intestinal fortitude for terminations than most attorneys, and definitely more than office managers. [See my previous post entitled Law Firm Administrators — A Tough Breed.] I’ve always been somewhat amused that an attorney can be incredibly ruthless in court, virtually eviscerating the opposition, but turn into a real wimp when it comes to dealing directly and honestly with his/her own staff person’s poor performance.

Often, attorneys use the “torture” method to deal with bad employee situations. What is that, you ask? Simple — and perhaps you’ll recognize this technique as one you’ve utilized in the past — try to make the employee’s life at the firm so miserable they will leave voluntarily. Problem is, it usually becomes a situation of mutual torture — they can dish out as much as they take in ways that may surprise you — which I have sometimes seen last for years.

What firms don’t realize is that keeping on poor performers can cost you high quality employees in the process. So you don’t just torture yourself when you fail to deal with low performers, you torture others. That damages morale, and results in decreased performance by otherwise high performing employees. And in today’s tight labor market, often they will just move on. What does that mean to your firm in terms of lost productivity and expense? Well, you know about the productivity loss, and oftentimes that has prevented you from dealing with a bad situation; you just aren’t willing to deal with the temporary drop in productivity. What you don’t realize is that turnover is much more expensive than you think. See my article entitled Calculating The True Cost of Turnover to see just how expensive.

What is a low performer? It isn’t usually someone lacking in the technical skills to do the job. That’s an incompetent performer — somewhat different — and you are more likely to deal with incompetence in a timely fashion. No, low performers, according to study participants, are those who exhibit certain traits, including

** Negative attitude
** Stirring up trouble
** Blaming others
** Lacking initiative
** Incompetence

I would add to this list selfishness and lack of teamwork.

You know who they are, the employees with the “entitlement” mentality who are quick to complain no matter what your firm does to appease them. They will request or even demand assistance of others, but always find an excuse if someone else asks for reciprocity. They will do what is asked of them, but never volunteer to do anything beyond. Even if a need is glaringly obvious and right under their nose, they will not voluntarily lift a hand to benefit the firm unless it is “their job.”

For a low performer, their mistakes are never their own. That is perhaps one of the most maddening traits from a management perspective. Because if someone doesn’t take “ownership” of mistakes, they can never learn from them and improve.

Ok, what should you be doing? Simple. Don’t accept low performance attitudes in your employees — I always called them “killer bees” — or you risk lowering the performance of others, and losing quality employees through increased undesirable turnover. Remember that the “torture” method rarely results in the one you want to leave doing so. It’s usually someone else you had hoped would never walk out the door, who is just fed up watching the situation and wondering why you don’t deal with it effectively.

So deal with it. Have candid conversations about unacceptable behaviors. Document the file regarding those conversations. Give a deadline for permanent improvement. If the deadline arrives and no significant change is evident, do the deed. Do it like ripping off a bandage, quickly and decisively.

If you’re a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, or a client of mine, you can contact me for specimen departure checklists and exit interviews to ensure you handle this methodically, consistently, and with diligence. Believe me it makes the process a lot easier if you have a checklist in hand to go over as soon as the words are out of your mouth.

[Note: If you’re not a PBA member or client, contact the law practice manager at your own state bar for assistance, or the American Bar Association.]

Don’t allow poor performers to linger at your firm. Inevitably it will cost you money in ways you don’t anticipate. And it will make your office environment more unpleasant day by day. Law firm life can be stressful enough. Don’t make it worse when you can avoid it.


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