How do I draw the line?


I work for a small company. Three of us are in office and two work from home. I wear many hats, one of which is to manage the two other people in the office with me who were brought in organically as our needs grew.

Unfortunately, one of those employees is constantly distracted, either talking or texting on her cell phone, talking about personal issues to the rest of us in the office and, in general, just extremely unproductive and unfocused - just staring at the computer screen or aimless scrolling but not actually doing anything.

I have tried many ways to curb this behavior including scheduling daily five minute meetings to encourage setting goals by discussing out loud what our goals are for the day as well as spoken to her privately about what is appropriate in the office and what is not.

After the private talks, the texting and personal cell phone use is curbed temporarily but she falls back into the same patterns after a week or so. Additionally, she remains vague in the meetings about her goals for the day despite the fact that I've showed her examples of ways to be more specific.

I'm at a loss. I do not want to appear like a dictator in the office or a nag or "bosshole" but I feel as if this person just isn't picking up on what should clearly be slapping her in the face.

Any advice?

Connie, Florida

Dan Bobinski's Answer:

Well Connie, metaphorically speaking, she does need a slap in the face. You are part of a very small business, and you can't afford to pay people for doing nothing.

In other words, a firm line needs to be drawn. But if you're concerned about not appearing as a nag, then lean on company policy to be the "bad guy," not you.

That said, with such a small office it's probably unlikely that you have a company policy manual, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have one. They're valuable even for small offices, so get one. If need be, buy a software program that gives you a template and edit your own. Here are my recommendations:

1. Create a policy manual. In the "unacceptable activities" section, be sure to address issues like texting, personal phone calls, and work deadlines. You'll need to cover a broader spectrum, but those should be included.

2. In the manual, clearly delineate a discipline policy. It's commonly accepted practice to have graduating levels of discipline. For example: 1st offence: Verbal warning; 2nd offence: Written warning and suspension without pay; 3rd offence: Dismissal.

3. Print copies of the policy manual and have all employees sign a page that indicates they've read and understand the manual, and that as a condition of employment, they agree to abide by the policies set forth.

4. After everyone has provided you signed copies that they've read and understand the manual, you are free to administer discipline without fear of a lawsuit, and you can lean on the manual as the "bad guy." e.g., "I'm sorry, Susan, but spending 30 minutes each hour talking and texting to friends is a violation of company policy. I'm going to have to issue you a verbal warning that this is unacceptable. If it happens again I'm going to have to issue a written warning along with a suspension without pay."

Be sure to document the day and time you gave her that warning and file it in her personnel file.

This way, you're not a dictator for firmly but politely following company policy. You state that one of your hats is to manage the other two people in the office. That position grants you authority, and you must step up and assertively (not aggressively, but firmly and politely) take that authority.

Be matter-of-fact about it. Emphasize the need to accomplish company goals. Reiterate that you want people to enjoy their job, but that if goals are not met, then the bottom line suffers and people start getting laid off.

It also sounds like you might benefit from conducting a short training on SMART goals. If you're not familiar with them, do a search on the phrase and study up on it. Goals should be specifically measureable, have a specific action, be realistic, and have a specific time of completion (SMART). If you provide training on goal setting and your daydreamer still can't meet deadlines, you have a strong position if the situation reaches the point of termination.

Contrary to what some believe, a job is not a right, and your lazy employee is not entitled to a job. She's entitled to a paycheck if she performs prescribed tasks outlined in her job, but she is not entitled to the job if she does not meet job expectations.

Step up, my friend. Be firm but polite. You have been placed over these two employees to manage their efforts. Provide training to help them meet their objectives, but if they still can't do it, you need to be firm but polite and do what's required of your position.

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About our Expert

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. Hes also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence

Older Comments

There is no reason to tollerate lazy employees during a recession. There is plenty of tallent out there. Go through the stated proceedures to document the unacceptable activities. Then lay the person off!!! Find someone else who will be a team player and work for the company instead of cost the company money in non-productive personal activies.

Ken Bear Cole Portland, Oregon

When one person in a small team is not fulfilling their role it can have a significant impact on team results and team climate. As the team manager you are responsible for the results that your team produces and have a legitimate role to set goals and standards, provide feedback on performance and coaching for improvement. Even though the team is small and your team leadership role has evolved informally I feel sure that you won’t be seen as a ‘dictator or nag’ because you implement these important management practices.

Let’s start with feedback, to be effective feedback can’t just be given, it needs to be listened to, and acted upon by the individual concerned. As Peter Drucker says, “it is what the listener does” that counts. From your description it sounds like you have offered feedback a number of times, but for whatever reasons your direct report has not sustained the required behavioural changes.

In my coaching work, I use a 4 step feedback model which enables managers to provide effective feedback and realise behavioural change from their direct reports.

Step 1 Ask if you can give them some feedback, for example, “Can we talk about something? Can I share something with you? I would like to give you some feedback, is now a good time?”

For feedback to be effective, the receiver needs to be open to hearing what you have to say, so asking their permission is the critical first step. Nine times out of ten, they will say yes, but if they say no, ask them again a little later and if they still say no, tell them that there is something that you need to talk to them about and that you would like to arrange a mutually convenient time and put it in the diary for as soon as possible.

Step 2 Describe the specific behaviour, what is it that you have seen, heard or read? In your description of the situation you gave a number of behavioural examples. Use the words, “when you… “ and list the behaviours. So, “When you talk and text on your cell phone” or “When you talk to your colleagues about personal issues…”

Step 3 Describe the impact of the behaviour for them, for the team, for you, for your organisation etc. For example, when you…what happens is that others are distracted from the things they need to do, we fall behind as a team with our workload and this puts additional pressure on other team members and I begin to question your commitment and willingness to change.

This step highlights the impact and consequences of what they are doing.

Step 4 Ask for a new behaviour. What can you do differently? How might you handle this? What can you do to change this? The key here is that the ownership for the action needs to lie with the employee. If they struggle to come up with any ideas have a few thoughts ready and offer them some suggestions that you think will help them to achieve a positive change in their behaviour.

I would encourage you to build feedback into your everyday conversations with all of your team not just the direct report that is currently causing you some concern.

Another tool that managers have at their disposal for managing performance is goal setting. I was struck by your description of the 5 minute team meetings where you share the goals for the day. Whilst this can be a very effective means of focussing the team on a day to day basis I wondered whether you had a set of formal team goals for the year and whether these have been broken down into monthly/weekly goals and delegated to individual team members.

Establishing SMART goals for each team member will enable you to monitor performance against plan for the team overall and each individual providing you with additional data for feedback conversations and or 1-1 meetings with your direct reports.

On a final note whilst we have been talking about providing feedback which seeks to adjust or change somebody’s behaviour the same 4 step approach can be used to provide positive feedback, asking for permission to offer feedback, describing the positive behaviours and their impact and then in step 4 saying keep up the good work or just, thank you.

Andrea Adams,

Andrea Adams

I think that all the hr policies and procedures aren't going to change the behavior. The more you tolerate this type of behavior the more likely it will effect your other employees. It is sending them the wrong message of what is appropriate in the workplace.

I would put her on a 30 day 'improvement' plan and find someone else who will be more committed to her job!

Bath A Miller Atlanta, GA

All the information provided is sound and does work. From my perspective on this, it sounds like the individual is lacking a challenge. this may stem from a point one of the writers made...the need for clearly defined goals. If the staff don't know where the company is going they cannot see themselves getting anywhere nor will they feel that they are part of the company if they have no 'buy-in.'

Setting an Employee Performance objectives based on the company goals and then have your employees set up their individual learning plans based on a combination of learning new things to support their job and the company and also for their long term career planning. This could be informal training like job shadowing, regular reading of business articles, books, etc. and formal training like seminars, College courses, University, etc.

Regardless of what you choose it is about motivation and engagement of the employee.

Brian Whiteford Vancouver, BC Canada