A reader writes:
We have a Receptionist/HR Asst/Office Asst for our front desk. She does new hire packages, runs errands etc.
Pros: very efficient, proactive, creative, works well under pressure
Cons: horrible time management, ignores feedback
Facts of life: she's currently heavily pregnant, she has a very long commute and she's pretty young ( It's her first full-time position)
Issue: her time discipline has been an issue, even before her pregnancy announcement - for an hourly worker, she comes in late, has absenteeism issues, each errand run turns into a 2 hr trip - after every time we discuss it with her and give feedback, she does well for a few weeks and then its the same thing again.
The company had been toying with letting her go for a while now and while we are very happy with her work quality, she is expected to work 40 hrs a week. Between personal, health and weather issues, she has worked 1 day out of the last 7 working days. She's made plans to work right up to her delivery and plans to be back at work within 3 weeks of having the baby but given her absenteeism issues, we don't know if we can rely on that.
I personally will be affected if she's let go and knowing how hard it is to get efficient folks, I have been trying to see what options we could work out. Can I actually sit down with her and suggest that she consider taking time off for a while and come back once she's more settled? Or am I trying too hard? Should we just let her go and find someone else?
Yes, you are trying too hard. There are tons of good people out of work who would do a good job in this role and actually show up on a regular basis. You're letting her get away with bad behavior because you fear the hassle of finding a replacement, and you worry about what the replacement would be like, but this is one of those situations where once you do it, you'll be kicking yourself for having waited so long.
That said, I'm going to assume that she really does need to be in the office 40 hours a week every week (which is probably the case if she's the receptionist). But in these situations, it's always worth checking your premises to be sure, especially when you're happy with someone's work quality.
Anyway... Look, either she's required to be there reliably or she's not. You've talked to her about it repeatedly, she improves for a while, then she backslides, and you talk to her again and the cycle continues. Why? Because there are no consequences, which signals to her that it's not really as mandatory as you say it is. You're trying to persuade her and cajole her into meeting the requirements of the job, rather than treating them like, you know, requirements.
Use your authority. These situations are what it's there for.
This means that you sit her down and say: "Look, your job requires that you be here for 40 hours a week every week unless it's cleared in advance. It also requires you to be here on time every day. And we expect you to take 30 minutes for the type of errands you run, not two hours. These are requirements of the job, and they're not flexible. If you continue not to meet these requirements, we will need to let you go. This is the final warning you'll get."
I'm also a big fan of asking people, "Can you commit to meeting those requirements? Because if you don't want to or don't think it's the right fit for you, let's be realistic about this up-front and plan a transition that will work for both of us." Sometimes people are straight with you when you take this approach and will tell you it's not for them. And when they don't, well, it's not going to be much of a surprise to them when they end up getting fired for doing what you told them would get them fired.
However, the whole situation is complicated by the fact that she's pregnant. If you've let her get away with this behavior all along without addressing it in a serious way and then you fire her right before her due date, you risk it looking like you fired her because of the pregnancy, which is illegal. That wouldn't actually be a correct perception, but because you didn't address this head-on earlier, you're now in a situation where your motives could be suspect. And that sucks. And it's one of the reasons why it's always important to address any performance issue swiftly and directly, so that you don't find yourself in the situation you're now stuck in.
This doesn't mean you can't do anything about it until after her maternity leave -- you're allowed to fire people in protected legal classes as long as you have legitimate reasons to do so (i.e., ones that aren't based on their protected legal class but instead are about performance or whatever), but it does mean that you need to care more about documentation and doing it all correctly. So keep that in mind.
As for your actual question, about whether you should suggest that she take time off and come back when she's more settled: First, is that even realistic? Presumably you'll need to replace her in the meantime and can't hold the job open indefinitely. But more to the point, sure, if you have a rapport with her, feel free to point out that she's not acting like someone who wants to have a job that requires reliability, and she should think about whether that's right for her right now or not. But ultimately, as a manager, your responsibility is to take the steps I described above, regardless of whether or not you also have a heart-to-heart with her.
And keep in mind that you have an obligation not only to your company to take these steps, but also to other employees, who are probably growing increasingly frustrated that the company isn't doing anything about the flaky, unreliable assistant.
By the way, you have a lot of company in this boat. The reality is that most managers don't remove problem employees quickly enough -- because we're human, because we like to give people additional chances, and because we don’t like telling people that they're failing. I've been guilty of this myself; every good manager has been. But it's time to act.
A good litmus test for any manager out there struggling with a similar situation: Would you feel relieved if the person told you they were resigning? If so, that's a sign that you have a performance problem that you need to address in a serious way, right now.