Companies & Industries

Issue: A Good Employee Turns Scratchy


An impressive employee diligently works her way up through the ranks—only to give a subpar performance once she gets to the top

Beth Waggoner* watched in amazement as a promising employee she had promoted performed so poorly it put an entire organization in danger of sinking. An accountant who loves animals, Waggoner was serving (pro bono) as president of the board of directors for Paws Need Families, a no-kill nonprofit cat shelter outside Philadelphia.

The shelter's mission was to house and give veterinary care to abused and neglected cats until a suitable adoptive home could be found. When the existing shelter manager quit, Waggoner and the rest of the board considered Della a perfect choice for the job. "Della started as a cleaner, then was made assistant manager," Waggoner says. "She did well and was enthusiastic about the job and great with the public. And we liked the idea of showing the employees that there was upward mobility, so we promoted her to manager."

Like many animal shelters, Paws Need Families found itself perpetually short of funds, so it was not without careful deliberation that the board bumped up Della's salary some 20%. A single mother of two small children, Della was grateful for the raise.

Soon after the promotion, Della began having personal problems that spilled over to the office, including financial ones. "We ended up lending her money and letting her pay it back little by little from her salary."

Della also started arriving to work late, a serious offense since only she had the key to the shelter, and sometimes other employers would have to stand outside in the cold before she arrived—not to mention the inconvenience to public stopping by to inquire about adopting pets. To avoid pointing the finger at Della, Waggoner and the board held a meeting at which they reminded everyone to be on time. The next day Della showed up for work half an hour late.

"She just seemed overwhelmed by the job when she became manager," Waggoner says. When the assistant manager job became open, the board hired someone with pronounced organizational skills to compensate for Della's dissolute habits. The assistant manager, Gwen, was efficient and responsible, but it could only mitigate Della's performance so much.

"Gwen came to us to let us know computer records showed some of the cats were five months behind on inoculations," says Waggoner. "That's a disaster, because if one cat gets sick, it can spread fast to others."

Soon Waggoner discovered more bad news. "There were adoption applications sitting on Della's desk that were weeks old. The whole reason we exist is to find homes for cats. Things just couldn't go on," Waggoner says.

That week, the board terminated Della's employment.

Waggoner wonders if they could have done anything earlier to help Della manage the responsibilities of her job. And was it fair to terminate someone who clearly needed an income desperately? Or was the board only enabling Della to behave more irresponsibly?

* This case scenario is true. Names and some identifying details have been changed.

It's inadvisable to promote employees based solely on past performance. And when you do bump them up, you mustn't desert them at the helm

In what way could the firing and hiring of Della,* an animal shelter manager paid a fairly modest salary, hold important lessons for high-level corporate executives and their boards?

Well, in just about every way, say business consultants. The drama of Della's incompetence has played out with many a high-level corporate officer newly promoted to CEO.

"I see this happen all the time in Corporate America," says Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded the Boswell Group, a New York business consulting firm. "A vice-president is promoted to CEO, and then suddenly seems a lot less impressive."

The first defense against this problem is prevention. Sulkowicz believes that whether you're dealing with a 20-employee not-for-profit or a 20,000-employee multinational corporation, your board should always interview outside candidates rather than automatically hiring from within.

"Someone from the outside may have fresh ideas, a new perspective on the job and the organization," Sulkowicz says. So bumping Della up without giving other candidates a chance was the first mistake.

Once the new leader is chosen and in office, it's time for a series of frequent meetings to find out how things are going. In the case of Della, the cat shelter had a comprehensive training manual with all the job's responsibilities laid out, and Della read and signed it. But it wasn't until reports of her negligence surfaced that the board started to look into what metrics she was and wasn't living up to.

"This is such a common problem, it drives me crazy," says Ken Blanchard, co-author of the seminal tome The One-Minute Manager and the upcoming Don't Mark My Paper: Help Me Get an A (Pearson, 2009). "We promote people and sit back and wait for them to succeed, and it doesn't always happen."

Instead, Blanchard believes in frequent meetings not only to evaluate how newly promoted executives are doing but also to figure out how to help them do the job better. If such meetings had taken place weekly or once every two weeks, the negligence regarding the cat inoculations and adoption applications could have been remedied sooner.

Instead of implementing such a system of review, the shelter board responded to Della's deficiencies by filling the open assistant manager position with someone thought to be capable of compensating for Della's lack of organizational skills.

"It was probably expedient to hire an assistant manager to compensate," says Liz Ryan, a career and human-resources consultant. "But in the long term, it was a way to avoid taking the bull by the horns."

Despite his dedication to helping employees succeed, Blanchard concedes there may be times that call for drastic measures. "I think one of the jobs of the board is to ask: 'Should we fire the president?' If the answer is no, then: 'What do we do to help the president accomplish goals?'" Blanchard says.

But should the dedication to assisting workers apply to the issue of the employee's bringing personal woes to the office on a regular basis?

"That's not good," say Ryan. "If you can't take care of your own life, how are you supposed to be responsible for an organization? And how are the other people who work there supposed to respect you? Instead of lending Della money, they should have given her the money outright and said: 'We're going to make a search for a new manager.'"

Rebecca Reisner is an editor at BusinessWeek.com .

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