Managers must set standards and hold employees accountable

Dear Joan:
I was just speaking with our CEO and she asked me to look into a problem that was brought out in a recent employee/manager survey.  Our managers are focusing their time on those staff who do a good job and "get it."  They're not focusing on the staff who, they believe, do not have a strong work ethic.  How do we turn these "place holders" around?    

The theoretical answer is that we fire those who don't produce and replace them with those who do.  It's not that simple for many reasons.  Foremost is that while the managers will comment on how some of their staff are not producing, they're reluctant to have them fired.  I think the reality of it is that it's the managers who are not performing their duties.  They need to work with those employees who are not meeting our (hopefully) clearly defined goals and expectations for the staff.  Coach, counsel, replace should be the process.  

Have you had an article on this topic recently?  I'm sure it's a common management issue at all businesses. I appreciate any help you can provide.  Thanks. 

“Place holders” is a great description. It’s easier to confront, discipline and/or fire the nasty slacker or hopelessly inept bungler than it is to deal with work ethic issues or mediocre performance. Yet, if the place holders are not meeting expectations, they are preventing the organization from operating at full head count and forcing the good employees to work twice as hard.  

Like you, I hear complaints about these chair warmers from the very people who should be doing something about it. A supervisor will moan, “Well he’s better than having no one in the job at all,” or, “I’m too busy to deal with it.” And yet, if the boss stepped back and took an objective look, the facts would probably tell the tale. If the place holder were gone, the good employees would likely be relieved and pick up the slack. And perhaps the boss wouldn’t be so busy if he weren’t dealing with the workload and potential conflicts resulting from the problem employees.  

While there is nothing wrong with spending more time with the employees who are working hard and adding value (the group that’s often taken for granted), it doesn’t mean you let the rest of the group operate below standards. If this issue emerged from the employees in an all-staff survey, it must be significant across the organization and should be the focus of management training and action. Your CEO would be wise to build “setting high standards and confronting and coaching performance issues” into the managers’ goals for the year, as well as measuring them as a part of their performance reviews.  

Most managers struggle with how and when to confront mediocre performance. This is particularly true when the place warmer has been with the organization for a long time; is someone they like or know personally; is in a hard-to-find specialty; or, the individual has some personal problems at home, such as financial or family problems. However these are not good reasons to look the other way. 

The process should be to:
  • Clarify the expected standard. (If it’s a long-standing issue, the supervisor needs to be ready to answer the question, “Why are you bringing this up now?” The answer often lies in new customer demands, increased technology requirements, staff morale, or increased competition.) 
  • Give specific feedback on how the standard is being missed and how it is hurting him/her and others. If this conversation has occurred before, without any sustained improvement, the supervisor should explain what could happen if permanent corrections aren’t made (including loss of key projects, reduced merit pay, disciplinary action, loss of their job, or other real consequences.)  
  • Provide coaching and help the person with an action plan. A “Performance Plan” is a detailed action plan that the employee and supervisor co-develop. It includes short, measurable results the employee is accountable to achieve. Once this plan goes into affect, the message is clear: this is a serious issue that must be fixed. 
  • The supervisor shouldn’t play “Catch Me If You Can” while monitoring a mediocre employee’s performance. Instead of chasing the employee, require him/her to monitor their own performance with checklists, records, emails and bring them to the supervisor at regularly scheduled meetings to report on progress.  
  • Yo-Yo performance is failed performance. Consistency is the target in the Performance Plan. Anything less should be grounds for termination. Employees who constantly have to be monitored and supervised are a drain on the organization. 
In the end, the place holder will either step up to the expectations or “fire themselves” by missing them. In either case, the good employees will be grateful for leaders who are doing their jobs, and satisfaction and morale will improve. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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