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If They Aren't Getting Better, They Can't Stay
by Mike McKinley

A high-level executive recently told me her assistant just wasn't cutting it. The assistant had worked for the company for 11 years and was not much help anymore. In fact, the executive said she ended up doing a lot of the assistant's work!

Something is wrong here. The following are some observations regarding the situation:
  • The assistant has not been informed of the executive's expectations and held accountable for them.
  • The executive has given up and adopted the attitude, Forget it, I'll just do it myself.
  • Other people in this office know that the assistant isn't cutting it and probably feel resentful.
  • The executive is not interacting with other personnel, because she is too busy doing two jobs.
  • The executive is overworked and exhausted from covering for her assistant.
  • New programs and new ideas are not created because there is no time or energy for them.
  • The executive's own future is in jeopardy as she and the assistant are not in a cooperative partnership.
  • Something must change. Here are some possible actions:
Tell the assistant what the expectations are and hold the assistant accountable. Moreover, put the expectations in writing so that they can be referred to repeatedly. Make the expectations objective rather than subjective. For example, rather than saying the expectation is To be more productive, describe specific productive behaviors, such as All high-priority tasks will be completed the same day they are assigned; if the task takes longer than one day to complete, a progress report will be made at the end of each day.

Implementing a training program. Signs that the assistant may need continuing education on the job include: tasks are taking too long to complete and problem-solving strategies appear weak or nonexistent when the assistant is faced with a roadblock. The installation of new hardware or software almost always needs to be coupled with training to ensure the employee is using it efficiently. With the assistant, plan any necessary training opportunities and the best delivery model. Some may need one-on-one coaching while others may prefer small-group sessions.

Conduct an in-depth evaluation of the situation. Not all poor performance is due to a lack of training or unclear expectations. A small sampling of other factors to consider include: attitude, family issues, health problems, current wage level, and personal goals. Certainly you would want to determine if the performance has always been marginal or if it was acceptable at one time and then declined. A direct discussion with the employee is warranted and may reveal essential insights.

Assign the assistant to a new, more appropriate position. Perhaps after 11 years, it's time for a change of scenery. While too much change may drive someone crazy, so can too little change. Is the assistant bored with the position? Is he or she in a position that is not challenging enough, or too challenging based on skill level? Does the assistant grasp the importance of the job to be done? When there is not an appropriate connection between the assistant and the purpose of his or her job, maybe a different, more meaningful position is in order.

Fire the assistant. When a situation is beyond repair, termination is an option. Given the low unemployment statistics, the potential for replacing the assistant needs to be considered. Nonetheless, an empty slot is better than the wrong person in the slot. If the executive is going to be her own assistant, she would be better off without the emotional garbage of feeling constant irritation with her current assistant. People grow out of jobs. People decide to be unflexible and unwilling to learn. In these situations, cut your losses and move on.

In the case of the executive and her assistant, the assistant needs a jolt. One or several of the above actions should be implemented immediately. As my father used to say, “Everyone needs a pat on the back-Sometimes it's harder; sometimes it's lower.”

Michael McKinley, CSP, CPAE, is a professional speaker who builds and delivers personalized presentations on business topics for corporations and professional associations. He owns McKinley Companies, Inc., whose Thinking Publications division publishes resources for speech-language pathologists. Mike's Alive! Alive! Associates division markets his speaking and consulting services.

Copyright Michael McKinley. All Rights Reserved.

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