Troubled employee? Handle with care

The only thing Project Leader Sam Norcross knew for sure was that Phil Potter's performance continued to decline. Every time he broached the subject, Potter, a bright young engineer, promised to improve, a promise he consistently broke.
By Raymond Dreyfack August 1, 1998

The only thing Project Leader Sam Norcross knew for sure was that Phil Potter’s performance continued to decline. Every time he broached the subject, Potter, a bright young engineer, promised to improve, a promise he consistently broke.

When the supervisor tried to determine the reason for the decline, he hit a dead end. In response to his questions Potter assured him that nothing was wrong, he had no personal problems. Norcross didn’t believe him. Something had to be wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on what. But the Phil Potter on staff today was not the same guy who had been in his group for almost 2 yr now.

For one thing, he was drinking. Norcross had observed him several times at lunchtime downing booze at the bar where they ate. But he never had been drunk on the job, so he couldn’t focus on that. Another thing: In the past Potter had been cheerful and friendly. In recent months he appeared grumpy and irritable as if it might hurt him to smile.

Something was troubling him, but Norcross couldn’t figure out what.

Question : What, if anything, would you do in a similar situation?

Brill’s counsel: Norcross discussed his concern with his boss. Plant Engineer Bob Brill listened thoughtfully as the project leader relayed his misgivings.

“It does look like something is wrong,” he agreed. “A person doesn’t suddenly change his skin like a lizard without some underlying cause.

“What to do about it, of course, is the question. My advice is to proceed gingerly. The safest approach in a situation like this is to discuss the job, not the man. In fact, that’s all you have a right to discuss. Faulty work judgment, poor performance, and behavior affecting others in the department are legitimate subjects for discussion.

“Beyond that, you can suggest that Potter seek professional guidance if he needs it, even offer to help arrange it, but the one course not to take is to try to play psychologist yourself.”