Stressed About An Under-Performing Co-Worker?


Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. What do you do however when you work in a setting where one of your co-workers is not providing the best service to your customers or clients? What if anything do you do about it and exactly how do you proceed?

Can we make two broad assumptions?

  1. Most of us get better in a job as we spend time in the role.
  2. Most of us genuinely want to improve.
You work with others on an assembly line, in a restaurant, on a team or at an office; you someone is underperforming regularly. They may be friendly, love a good joke, be a fun person to be around, but the quality of their work is questionable.
Now there’s one line of thought which is that as a colleague, you should just worry about your own responsibilities and doing your own job the best you can. After all, if the customers or clients have a problem it’s up to them to complain or question the value of the services they receive and up to management to do something about it if and when it comes to their attention. The problem with this is that you may be aware of the inferior service people are receiving from that individual but the customers and management may not; especially in settings where employees have the latitude to work alone.
If you believe in customer service excellence, knowing customers are receiving inferior service where you work will bother you; be it because it reflects on you too, you have high personal standards, or you know what management expects. If and when those customers or clients realize the poor quality of service they’ve received, they may not just be critical of that one employee, they may generalize and paint all employees (including you) with the same brush, telling others they’ll get poor service if they get products, goods or service where you work.
You can bury your head in the sand and pretend you don’t see, hear or know about the poor service a colleague delivers. In a perverse twist, you might even be somewhat glad that the co-worker is underperforming because it makes you look good by comparison. This in my mind is very short-sighted, because while you are providing superior service to your customers, the total number of clients or customers bringing their business may drop substantially if the reputation of the poor service spreads. You are guilty of being complicit, or enabling the poor service to continue by doing little or nothing about it.
So the problem is what to actually do. Should you share your concerns with management and let them take whatever action they see fit? You may or may not want to remain anonymous because you have to work alongside this person every day. No matter how you visualize the situation you feel you’re squealing. The uneasiness you feel is actually because you yourself wouldn’t want a co-worker going to management over your own poor performance as a first step. Yet if you speak with the co-worker first and there’s no improvement, going to management as a 2nd step, makes it certain it was you who identified them.
One option is the straightforward meeting with the person and sharing your issues. You might fear backlash, worry that you’ll damage a relationship with a co-worker and have elevated tension in your workplace making it no longer a place you enjoy working due to stress you’ve created, but doing nothing is causing you stress too.
First identify if the other employee is in fact meeting company expectations. Could be time has made you wiser, better, etc. and the person is performing much like you yourself when you were younger. So is it the learning curve, poor service, a bad attitude or an indifference to improve where they’ve plateaued and are not improving that’s a problem?
You could check with other colleagues to see if your concerns are shared, but what if they are not? Be aware you run the risk of having one of those people pass on your opinions to the co-worker in question. That could get ugly so you definitely need to make it about the service not the person.
And here we’ve hit upon the answer. De-personalize the problem so you’re not focusing on the individual but rather, the gap between expected service standards and the service delivered. When you come at things from wanting to standardize service excellence across your team, you provide a non-threatening way to address issues. You always need to remember however that discipline and training issues are probably not your areas of responsibility or authority so don’t go there.
Offering to provide support, guidance, the benefit of your own experience and being helpful may get you much further than appearing to attack the person themselves. Your focus should be on what you want to improve – the overall service levels received by your collective customers. You can also achieve positive results by praising and re-enforcing good behaviours when you observe them.
A last suggestion may be a team review of performance expectations and standards where everyone present takes responsibility for doing more, being better and providing better service. Sometimes the people who need this most tune out and those that are already doing excellent work may feel unfairly targeted but it may be an important step.
Please, weigh in with your thoughts and ideas.
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