Step 1: Get clear about the problem
Begin by getting very clear about the root of the problem. What is really going on, and why is the employee failing? What would winning look like? Is the problem a system problem that is more on you, or is it a specific individual’s problem? Before taking corrective action and before you put blame on an employee, you need to take a serious look at your systems to make sure they are not the problem.
Once you’re certain the problem rests with the employee, you should write down the root issue in three sentences or less. Don’t try to tackle multiple issues at once. Practice saying the problem out loud a few times to make sure it is accurate and will make sense to the employee. Once you’re clear about the problem and what needs to change, you are now ready to schedule a meeting with the employee.
Step 2: The first problem resolution meeting
The purpose of this meeting is for everyone to get on the same page and to get clarity regarding the problem, as well as possible solutions. The most important step in this meeting is to get the employee to acknowledge the problem and take ownership of their role in solving it.
Often the employee will attempt to blame others. Don’t let this happen. State the problem with absolute clarity. Then ask, “Do you acknowledge that this is an issue?” If they refuse to acknowledge that an issue exists, you can’t move on to the next step. The employee must recognize the issue and acknowledge their role in the problem. If they can’t, you need to end the meeting and give them a few days to process the issue. Meet with them again no later than one week from the first meeting. If they still can’t see the problem and acknowledge their role in it, you need to be prepared to let them go. You want employees who take ownership of their behavior, not those who blame everyone else for the problems surrounding them.
Assuming the employee sees the problem and wants to take ownership and responsibility, you then get the employee’s ideas about the underlying basis of the issue. If they truly don’t know, share your thoughts with directness and honesty. Now is not the time to be timid. Get the employee’s commitment to actively work on correcting the problem. It should be clear to you that the employee really wants to address the problem and improve. Furthermore, you should be committed to helping the employee succeed. Be tender but firm. Your goal is to not push them out, but to support them in becoming a much better employee and person.
Step 3: Create a plan to deal with the issue
During the first meeting you will want to work together to create a written plan that defines the problem, then establishes specific action items, benchmarks, standards and time frames that will fix the problem. The action items must be measurable. You can’t just say to the employee that they need to be “better” or “get more done.” What does that mean specifically? Coming up with specific measurements of success will not only help the employee, but it will help you better define what is expected. Everyone is better off knowing if they are winning or losing. Set specific expectations along with very specific time frames; it will help everyone involved.
The employee must also understand the serious consequences of not following through with the plan. They need to know their job is on the line. They should also know that you genuinely don’t want to let them go. You want them to succeed. They should feel your concern and commitment to them as they begin to take personal ownership of the problem.
Step 4: Document the meeting
If an employee is undergoing a problem resolution, it is serious and needs to be documented. You should prepare an email following the first meeting that includes the following: a summary of the meeting clearly stating the problem; the plan with specific solutions, standards and action items that must be completed with clear timelines; and the consequences of the employee not following through with his or her commitments. A statement such as “Failure to meet these expectations may result in the termination of your employment” should be included in the email.
Example of an Initial Meeting Summary Email
Thank you so much for meeting today to go over your time management. In summary, we talked about your call answering percentage being under the expected 16% to 18 %. In September you were at 10% answered, in October at 8% and currently this month you are at 8.5%
To get you to the 16% to 18% range, you’ve committed to start taking calls at an average of about 30 calls a day, or 4 calls each hour. You will also be noting what obstacles get in the way so we can better support you. Over the next several weeks, we will meet to evaluate call answering and the balance of your other duties to ensure we hit this percentage expectation. As discussed, if the call answering standard is not being met by the end of our four- to five-week problem resolution, we will need to consider employment termination.
We will meet again next Thursday at 3:30 p.m. to check in. Thank you again for your willingness to work with me on this issue. If you have any questions along the way, please reach out to me. I am here to support you.
Step 5: Conduct weekly meetings
You want the plan and the employee to succeed, and you don’t want them to slip back into bad habits. You and the employee will be more successful if you meet weekly. Check your benchmarks and timelines. Hold them to the action items and standards that they have agreed to. Your goal is to help the employee overcome the problem. You can be supportive, but it is on them to either fix the problem or not. If the employee is genuinely trying but not quite hitting the benchmarks, feel free to modify the plan. You will also grow and become more successful as you learn how to help others overcome their challenges. Continue to meet with the employee weekly for up to six weeks.
Step 6: Make a decision
After completing this process, the solution typically jumps out at you. One of three things will happen: The employee sees the writing on the wall and decides not to make the necessary changes. They voluntarily quit and move on. Alternatively, the employee doesn’t follow the plan and continues to be a problem, and it becomes clear that they need to be terminated. You feel good about your decision to terminate the employee. You have given them every opportunity to fix the problem, and they are not surprised when termination happens. Finally, and optimally, the employee steps up, improves and really becomes an asset to the company. Relationships are strengthened and everyone takes a big step forward.
You should strive to create an environment of trust and safety for your employees. I have remained friends with several of the people I have had to let go, and I think it is because I truly cared about their welfare and they could feel that. Here are a few tips to help you succeed as you go through this process.
Be overly clear and direct. Don’t beat around the bush. Look the employee in the eye and tell them your concerns. Tell them you want them to succeed but that they aren’t currently, and then tell them exactly why you think they are failing.
Be a good listener. You can listen with empathy without agreeing with them. Employees frequently try to blame their failures on someone or something else. Listen with kindness and genuine concern but remain firm about holding them accountable for their role in the problem.
Encourage employees to become greater by owning and overcoming their problems. The best thing you can do for your employee is to help them become stronger and more competent. Be earnest in your desire to help your employee thrive, not by letting them slide but by holding them to a higher standard.
Get complete buy-in from the employee. You want these changes to be permanent. You want the employee to grow and become something more. That requires their buy-in and commitment to change. They should verbally commit to fixing the problem.
You should be the ultimate example and mentor. You must be committed to living high standards and being an example of an effective employee. Be the best mentor possible and give the employee an example of how to thrive at work. Let them see their potential through you.
I often look back on my early days of firing people with regret. I would get so worked up inside until I was boiling over and was finally fed up enough with the behavior that I went in and fired people without much warning, and without giving them much opportunity to change. So often they would say that they never saw it coming, and that was probably true. I was more worried about being nice than being truly helpful. I didn’t do them any favors.
I have loved our new problem resolution system. We now have a way to help these employees become more. Many now overcome the problems that get in the way of our mutual success. Sure, you are still going to have to fire those people who don’t step up and take responsibility for their bad behavior. But, for those individuals who want to improve and who really strive to overcome the problems facing them, you will become part of their success story. I wish you all success as you build your successful law firm with amazing long-term employees.