Don't let excuses ruin the workplace

I’m sure you’ve heard a multitude of excuses from employees for being late to work, late for their part of a major project or simply not wanting to carry out a specific task.

For instance, the other day I heard an executive assistant say she didn’t like doing minutes, and after 20 years of doing minutes, she didn’t want to do them anymore. Minutes are still an important part of her job. How can she simply refuse to do minutes just because she doesn’t "feel like" it anymore, and get away with it? 

You’ll also hear excuses such as "I didn’t know I had to do that," "I don’t know how to do that," and/or "I don’t have time for that."

Others simply don’t carry out a task and wait until someone finally notices. Then, when the indiscretion is discovered, the individual will lay blame on poor processes or uncooperative co-workers.

In one case I am aware of, an employee in a scientific environment failed to complete a report for more than five years. His excuse: "It was too boring, I didn’t like doing it." However, when confronted, the reality was deliberate resistance and backlash toward the boss because the boss always took credit for the employee’s work. Only after a demand from a new boss did this individual complete his long-overdue task.

On the other hand, was he disciplined? The answer is, no, the behaviour was ignored as they were just thankful to get the job done.

Most employees who throw out their ready-made excuses often get away with it because managers are so busy that they quickly say "OK" and let it go. They don’t take action until the excuses become an obvious pattern of disruption to getting work done. By then, the employee has probably become comfortable and successful in finding ways to avoid work.

So, what should a manager do when excuses have just gone too far? The following tips might help you out.

● Confirm your evidence — avoid confronting the employee when you first determine that enough is enough. Avoid the emotional approach and collect your evidence. Document the most recent incident and take time to think back about other excuses… I am confident you will see a pattern. Once you have the pattern in mind, then you can prepare to meet the employee.

● Review your assignment — prior to confronting an employee regarding their behaviour, check your own. Perhaps the problem starts with you? That’s because many times managers give directions too quickly, without much detail and expect the employee to understand exactly what you want them to do. Take time to review the assignment directions… ask yourself if there is any fault on your part. If there is, be honest about it.

● Meet the employee — approach the employee in a calm manner, raise the issue of the excuse and let the individual know you are trying to understand where they are coming from. If they need help, let them know you are more than willing to provide support, but you need to know how to help. You will quickly find the individual will rebuff the help, yet stick with their excuse. Continue with the confrontation, express some sympathy but also determination to remove the roadblock. Push back on the excuses and avoid saying "OK."

● Question, question, question — it is important to probe and analyze the excuse(s), so that you can really dig in and understand the employee’s perspective and the real cause of the problem. Ask questions regarding start times, prioritization of the individual’s time, what barriers they encountered and what they did to solve any barriers. Be sure to state the expectation of returning to the manager for clarification on any issue, rather than creating an excuse. At the same time, your questions may identify that an excuse was legitimate and it is up to you to address it. Engage your employee in this performance conversation.

● Create a broader understanding — most employees have a narrow vision of the impact of their behaviour on their colleagues and/or their organization. Therefore, it is important to clearly review what your expectations had been, and what importance the work has for the organization. If the excuse is simply not valid, be sure to express disappointment if the individual did indeed try to avoid responsibility by this behaviour. Point out how they have let you down and/or everyone on his/her team. Be honest and, again, repeat the fact that if they need help or clarification, they needed to ask for it.

● Clarify the performance process — it is important for the employee to realize that having conversations about resistant behaviour and their repetitive excuses is all part of a progressive discipline process. While the manager wants to give the individual opportunities to improve, there will be times when behaviour just doesn’t change. As a manager, you need to decide on the level of your patience depending on the impact on the organization, as well as your perception of the individual’s willingness and ability to modify their behaviour.

● Examine a coaching process — I hate to see a manager give up on someone, especially if the individual has a good attitude toward learning. You might find that a few coaching sessions might help. Often times, excuses have become standard behaviour, and the individual might not even realize what they are saying. Ensure that the coach sets specific goals with the individual and a timeline.

● Remove the problem — let’s face it, sometimes an individual no longer fits with an organization, and it is time to move them on. It is the best for all concerned. It is obvious the individual is not happy and, no matter what adjustments have been made, no matter how many discussions you’ve had, the poor attitude and multiple excuses continue. They suffer from the "excuse syndrome." The individual needs a fresh start, while the organization needs to be relieved from the pain the individual is creating. Let them go.

Organizations simply cannot experience success if one employee or more see life from a pessimistic, glass-half-empty perspective. Their chronic complaints and multiple excuses will drag your other employees down and, before you know it, morale has sunk into deep depths.

At the same time, it is not wise to rush to a decision. Therefore, pay attention, look for patterns, discuss with the employee, monitor, question, coach, and mentor as much as you can, until you have exhausted all your efforts. At this point, you have to ask my challenging question, "Do you have the time, energy and money to turn this person around?"

If not, it is time to move them on with their career.

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