Java with Joe: Sometimes you just have to ask an employee to get off the bus.

During my tenure as Chief Human Resources Officer at Cleveland Clinic, I really looked forward tomugs the “Java with Joe” meetings I had with leaders at every level throughout the organization. These were very informal sessions, with small groups of 10-15 people, where we sat down over coffee with no real agenda other than my asking “What’s keeping you up at night?” Invariably questions came up about the challenges of creating and managing an engaged work environment.

These days, when I speak to other organizations about their employee engagement and leadership issues, the Q&A session is again one of my favorite activities. So I thought I’d bring back Java with Joe to answer questions about engagement that I’m often asked. For now Java with Joe will become my blog, and I hope you find it useful.

If you’d like to join the conversation with a comment or a question of your own, something that’s keeping you up at night, please jump in.

So, here we go.

Question: I have a couple of people in my organizations that I just can’t seem to engage, despite my best efforts. What should I do next?

I hear this question all the time, from managers at many organizational levels. It can be very frustrating when no matter how hard you try, there are still some people who just cannot or will not get on the bus. What’s even worse is when they even seem to be working against you. According to Gallup’s research, it actually takes four actively engaged employees to neutralize just one actively disengaged person. From your own experience I think you’d agree that these people can really suck the energy out of an organization, when you consider all the work around you have to come up with to offset their negativity, all the complaints about their attitude you have to deal with from their teammates. And sometimes what makes the situation even more complicated is that these people may even be achieving the business goals set in front of them.

So what do you do? My first recommendation is to understand that as a leader you can’t actually engage any employee. After all my years as an HR leader working to build engaged organizations, I’ve come to the conclusion that as a leader all you can do is work hard to create the kind of environment in which employees want to get engaged. What I’m saying is that getting engaged at work…or not getting engaged at work…is a choice, a decision, that only the employee can make.

The fact is that there will always be some employees who choose not to be engaged no matter what you do, and at some point it’s not worth banging your head against the wall trying to figure out why. You’re a leader not a psychologist, and you probably won’t figure it out anyway because more often than not, these folks don’t understand why themselves.

So again, what do you do? I always recommend making attitude just as important a performance issue as any other business goal. This means actively managing the employee by having frequent performance discussions that include their lack of engagement and negative attitude. During those discussions, which you should document, you provide direct feedback about what you mean by a negative attitude, why that attitude affects the organization, and where it could lead if their attitude doesn’t improve. And where it could lead is that you might have to ask that person to get off the bus.

By the way, frequent performance discussions that include engagement issues should be part of your management process with everyone in your organization, so that the disengaged employee will not be surprised or feel singled out when you have this discussion.  I’ve had many emotional meetings with managers who have had it with an employee! Something tipped the scale, it was the last straw and they want to fire the person. But when I ask for documentation around their performance discussions with that person, all too often it’s shallow or even non-existent.

Contrary to what managers think, you can move an employee out of your organization for a negative attitude, just as for any other performance issue. But you have to do it in a way that is fair and compliant.

I realize that none of this is easy: dismissing an employee never is. But being a leader is not an easy job. And remember, no matter how hard you work at building an environment where employees want to be engaged, you’ll be judged not only by what you do, but what kind of behavior you tolerate in the organization. Which means that when you finally do ask those disengaged people to get off the bus, you should be prepared for the silent cheer that will go up from the rest of your organization!


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