By Jennifer Craig, WESST, February 20, 2012

Resolving conflict and the resulting lack of productivity in the workplace.
The new administrator (we’ll call her Sue) of a professional financial group came to me to get advice about hiring and firing. Her predecessor had allowed the behavior in the group to escalate to the point that very little was being accomplished and the professional-field staff was being made responsible for clerical work. The results were tragic. Several professionals left the organization and the past administrator was fired.

Sue wanted to make sure she did not make the same mistakes so she planned on hiring the “right” replacements, by revamping the benefits package. Unfortunately, she had not addressed the original problem that caused the turnover. In evaluating the situation, Sue admitted that the three clerical staff were overpaid for their duties; they had too much time on their hands (spending free time on Social Media); and they expected the field-professionals to notate the files themselves and place them in the office to be processed. Meanwhile, the four professionals had been running their legs off (back and forth to the office) while making most of the income for the group (working with clients). Something was wrong with this picture.

Like her predecessor, Sue was reluctant to fire the clerical staff, reprimand them, or expand their duties. Two had been with the company for 20 years while the other one only five. One was a trouble maker so Sue knew she would make a scene before approaching the owners. Of course, one way to prevent that from happening was to discuss the problem with the owners in advance and get their support. In order to do that effectively, she needed to do her homework and crunch the numbers, remembering that everything comes down to profit.

Employees spending too much time social networking at work are, in effect,  stealing company profitsFirst, she would have to assess how much money was being lost through turnover, a lack of productivity (time being spent on Social Media), and missed opportunities because those three staff members were allowed to continue their actions. She needed to find their job descriptions and talk to Human Resources. Since the company was relatively small, Sue was responsible for HR so I asked her to outline a plan of action for resolving the problem (working out all the possible scenarios). Then, take the financial proof and plan of action to the owners.

Remember, a problem untreated only grows bigger.

Like so many other people, Sue hates conflict. She looks at the situation and would rather ignore it than address it. However, a problem untreated only grows bigger, and if it does not change, the results will continue to be the same or worse. It is her responsibility to consider the company (her employer) first. She needs to be aware of the loss in profits involved when there is a lack of cooperation or productivity from employees. Then, the plan of action should be swift with outcomes and expectations made very clear. Staff members need to sign an agreement stating what is expected, receive new job descriptions, and be given a time period (probation) in which to change their behavior.

A manager who allows employees to steal from the company is as guilty as the thieves. Where managers fail is that they do not recognize that idle people are stealing from the company’s profits. If there is only enough work for two people, the third has to go or be moved to a place where they can be of use.

Staying ahead of problems is possible only if businesses provide clear communication (no surprises), include all staff in meetings where they can share ideas, and offer rewards and recognition (both must be earned) for productivity. On the other hand, managers need to be mindful of agitators and stop conflicts before they escalate. Often times, the problem is personalities — people will not or cannot get along with each other. This is still disruptive and has to be addressed because even minor conflicts within a company can influence productivity. Who wants to come to work when a team member is always angry, moody, or uncooperative?

Also, owners should never turn their businesses over to others to run. They should always maintain a standard by which business is conducted (internally as well as externally), with clear expectations. In order to hire and retain good employees, the problem employees have to be dealt with effectively and if the owner is not available or aware, issues may not be addressed.

On the good side, Sue reported that the owners were shocked by her findings. They had no idea the clerks were not busy. Together, she and the owners devised a plan that would be communicated across the board.

Upon approaching the clerks, first as a group and then individually, Sue learned that the trouble maker had lost both of her parents within a year of her divorce. She was angry and it was spilling over into the workplace. The woman agreed to change her performance and attitude.

The three clerks were given different work teams and assignments, new job descriptions, and two months probation to improve performance. The professionals were elated to have extra help and a team member who could learn more about field work.

All-in-all, the results were positive; however, Sue and the owners were prepared to fire those who did not want to change. Conflict and a lack of productivity are two disasters that are costly and demotivating.