1. Tackle issues head-on and promptly.
This may be especially important for tech staff who ignore policies, fail to carry their load or can’t seem to get along with co-workers.
“Don’t let the bad behavior of a few poison those who want to work,” says CIO Yvette Brown Koottungal at Barry University in Florida. She is also vice president for technology at the university, where she manages a team of 63.
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“If there is no willingness to change, document the concerns and manage them out of the organization in a timely manner,” she adds.
2. Take an empathetic approach.
For struggling staff who also show potential, take time to assess their overall work and life situation and start with empathy, says Steve Fabiani, vice president and chief information officer for Colgate University, whose team includes 47 people.
That’s not to say managers shouldn’t act decisively in serious cases—such as harassment, violence or theft—where the safety of students, colleagues and the institution must come first.
“I believe I was able to turn around a person’s attitude and performance simply by giving him the respect and appreciation of the knowledge and effort he was putting into the job,” says Janice Wilson, interim director of library services at Eastern Connecticut State University, who manages a team of six tech services staff. “Knowing there was trust rather than suspicion made the difference in changing someone who was often uncooperative into a person who looked for opportunities to do a good job.”
3. Communicate clearly.
Clarity is vital in any employee performance discussion—from ensuring that staff understand expectations to protecting the institution legally with careful wording in disciplinary actions.
The medium can be as important as the message, says Darrell Lutey, assistant director in the office of information technology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which has 12 employees. “Email is one of the worst tools a manager can use in dealing with staff. Whenever I find that I’m having difficulty with anyone, I either pick up the phone or, better yet, walk down to their office.”
Written documentation is a must when issues arise. “Document, document, document,” Lutey says. If someone’s work doesn’t improve, written records of performance appraisals, warnings and other relevant info will be required for termination or other disciplinary action.
4. Support professional development.
To fill in gaps in a staff member’s performance—or simply improve overall capability—encourage participation in seminars, classes or other learning activities.
In addition to studying specialized topics related to technology, employees also should broaden their knowledge of higher ed in general and bolster their soft skills. For Koottungal, this has included sending team members to conferences, Dale Carnegie leadership training, Lean Six Sigma and project management training, and the Gartner Symposium for senior staff in leadership roles.
Mid-level tech managers also need ongoing training, as they must have the skills to build and sustain a team that’s responsive to the campus community, says Pamela Luckett, deputy chief innovation officer for Dallas County Community College District. She has sponsored training for managers in areas such as conflict resolution, employee motivation, servant leadership and social intelligence.
5. Know when to move on.
“Sometimes your best efforts don’t yield the desired results,” says Luckett, who manages a team of 129. She recalls working with a new staff member who couldn’t adapt to a team environment. She provided mentoring and extra training, while also giving the employee personal attention in an effort to build rapport. But the desired level of teamwork never developed. After a year, the staffer was asked to leave.
In retrospect, Luckett feels the decision should have been made sooner. “But I wanted to show the person and the team that we believe in them and will do what we can to acclimate a person to the team,” she says.
For similarly challenging situations, she also suggests seeking expert guidance. “Enlist the advice of HR to ensure your understanding of policy and procedures as you deal with problem employees,” Luckett says.
6. Make the job attractive.
A positive work environment can motivate underachievers and support overall staff retention.
Building a winning employee value proposition is key to retaining a talented and diverse IT team, says Edna B. Chun, chief learning officer for HigherEd Talent, a consulting firm headquartered in Florida. Managers sometimes spend inordinate amounts of time on discrete performance issues without considering how to create a positive workplace.
“Managers need to carefully consider flexible schedules, teleworking, work/life balance and total rewards incentives,” she says. Such arrangements must be coordinated with the human resources office to ensure they follow institutional policies.
Jeremy Cucco, chief information officer and associate vice president for technology services at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, tries to assign employees to projects in which they’re interested. For example, the university’s media team, rather than just installing equipment, worked with representatives from the School of Music to design an overhaul of the concert hall’s audio-recording system.
“This allowed them to be seen by our campus members as the experts in media that they are, and also to take some pride and possess advanced knowledge in the system that was ultimately deployed,” he says.
7. Hire carefully.
Perhaps the best way to deal with problem employees is not to employ them in the first place. “Spend the time to hire right,” says Koottungal at Barry. Rushing to fill an open position is never a good idea; at the same time, look for attributes beyond the required tech skills.
“Ensure they are team players who don’t suffer from a hero syndrome or someone who prefers to work solo or in a siloed manner,” she says.
The importance of carefully executed hiring can’t be overemphasized, adds Lutey at UNLV. “Your employees are a long-term investment,” he says. “Once you have good people, work really hard to keep them.”
Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer who frequently covers HR issues.