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Dealing with Employees/Employee Difficulties

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Question
I am a lawyer; I have had my practice for almost 20 years.  I have always had a part-time legal assistant at 20 hours per week.  My current assistant believes she is quite capable, but an example of something she might do is type in the client's name as Mary in one document, Mari in the next document she types 10 minutes later, and Marie in the next document 10 minutes after that.  Here's my question.  I pay this assistant $14 per hour; she gets the same amount from my office-mate, who also needs someone to help her 20 hours per week.  The assistant has been here one year, and my office-mate thinks we ought to give the assistant a $1 per hour raise.  I have an aversion to giving a raise to someone who refuses to pay attention or care what the work product looks like, but if I did give her a raise I think 50 cents an hour more is plenty because she puts so little effort into everything she does.  My office-mate thinks that would be a slap in the face, and that since the assistant is "adequate," I am being unreasonable.  Am I?

Answer
Dear Diane,

I am a firm believer in rewarding good performance.  Your assistant's performance appears to be a far cry from good work. In fact, in my opinion, her work performance is not acceptable. I say that because she does not take appropriate and necessary care in a very important aspect of her job, producing accurate, error-free legal documents that bear your signature.  

The documents she types for you and your office mate represent the two of you.  When she prepares documents that are not accurate, where names are not consistent throughout the document, names are misspelled, etc., she is putting everyone on notice who receives those documents that you and your office mate are not concerned with details and that errors and inaccuracies don't matter; i.e., getting it done is more important than doing it right. That's not the image I would want to convey by reports bearing my signature, particularly legal documents.

I offer two suggestions for handling the issue of a raise.  My preference is that you sit down with this employee and spell out your concerns about her work product.  Be specific about the lack of dedication and commitment to producing good work by giving her samples of documents she's prepared where names are misspelled, etc.  Explain why it is important that she exert greater care and attention to producing accurate documents, how those documents represent you and your office mate, the legal issues that could arise due to name errors, and how documents she types reflect on your competence and commitment to excellence. Tell her that for the next 90 days you will return all documents to her that are not prepared accurately for correction.  Tell her that if she demonstrates that she is capable of producing accurate documents that reflect positively on you and your office mate, at the end of the 90 day period, you and your office mate will each reward her with $l per hour raise.  Then follow through and return all work that is not error-free and keep track of progress made.  Make every effort to assign her work with sufficient lead time for her to do the job.  Try to avoid rush assignments as those change focus from producing accurate work to just getting the job done.    

The second suggestion is to have a conversation with the employee wherein you tell her that you are not completely satisfied with her work.  Be specific about the errors she makes and let her know that her lack of attention to detail on documents that bear your signature is not acceptable.  Tell her you view her as a valued employee who is capable of producing acceptable work, and you are confident that she will be able to make the needed changes to produce acceptable, accurate documents.  As an expression of that confidence, she will receive a $1 per hour raise now, and in 90 days, with continued acceptable work production, she will receive another $1 per hour raise.  Return all work to her that isn't accurate, explain what corrections need to be made, and have her redo those documents.  If at the end of 90 days, her performance hasn't improved, no additional raise.  

I am not a fan of rewarding negative behavior which is kind-of what suggestion number two does, in my opinion.  If you are not doing at least yearly evaluations with the employee, you are doing both you and the employee a disservice.  Employees need feedback as to how they are doing.  If you have not been returning inaccurate documents to her for correction, you are giving her the message that her work is acceptable.  That's a dangerous precedent to set, and one that must be reversed.  

Sit down with your office mate and review the above suggestions.  Come up with a plan you both support and then discuss the plan with the employee.  Follow through with what you tell the employee, have ongoing review of her work thereafter; and hopefully, she will become an employee who represents you and your office mate well, and whose work product you are proud to sign.

Take care; I wish you well.

Alice J. Bogert  

Dealing with Employees

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Alice Bogert

Expertise

Today's workplace is filled with many issues that impact employee performance and add to workplace stress. I have many years experience supervising employees and can field questions for both management staff and non-management staff related to employee conflicts, employee-boss issues, time management, negotiation skills, preparing employee performance evaluations, developing resources, generation X and Y issues, and cultural diversity.

Experience

I am a retired law enforcement officer, and I teach training classes around the country for law enforcement. I am also a consultant/trainer to private industry teaching numerous management development and supervisory courses. I teach report writing at a local junior college where I am an adjunct faculty member. I've also worked as a substitute teacher for grades K-12 and private tutor. I've been a facilitator for Volunteers in Victim Assistance, helping citizens/employees deal with community or work related traumas, and I've worked with abused and neglected children.

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