@Work Advice: When researching an employee’s questionable past, stick to the facts

Karla Miller (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Reader: Shortly after taking a new job as a manager, I ran into problems with one of my charges, a 30-something professional. In addition to being belligerent, he had bad work habits and his output was awful. When I reported the problems, I was basically told to suck it up. But then the employee started distorting things I told him and making me look like a bad manager. Instinct told me that this deeply troubled employee had a past, so I did a Google search on him. I found newspaper stories reporting that he (or someone with the same name, approximate age and home town) had been forced to withdraw from college in the wake of a rape accusation. He was tried but acquitted. He also faced charges of another felony, from a different accuser. I don’t know that outcome. When I pointed out to my employer that someone with the same name, approximate age and home town as my charge had a history of getting in trouble (I made it clear that I couldn’t be sure it was my employee), my boss turned on me for doing the Google search. Was I wrong?

Karla: Would you believe I see the same chiropractor as another Karla Miller? What are the odds?

So, using crack sleuthing methods available to any third-grader researching photosynthesis, you found out that someone who may or may not be your co-worker was accused — not convicted — of two crimes. The “investigation” itself wasn’t wrong, but to your boss, those flimsy findings probably looked like an attempt to smear someone you are unable to manage.

I realize you can’t unGoogle what’s been Googled, but — assuming you’re still managing this person — you can try examining him from another angle. Is he malicious, or is he frustrated by miscommunications or other issues? Good managers look for ways to help problem employees improve before looking for ways to get rid of them.

That’s not to say you should ignore your instincts. But to build a more effective case for disciplining or terminating him, you need to rely less on feeling and more on facts.

Let’s review what you’ve observed about your employee: He’s “belligerent,” has “bad work habits” and produces “awful” work. Those are subjective terms, but if you can cite specifics — threatening or exploding at co-workers, blowing deadlines, making mistakes that cost time and money to fix — management is more likely to take your complaints seriously. Threats in particular are something no smart employer can afford to ignore. Be honest, be objective and document everything. And when you discuss the employee’s performance issues with him, include a third-party witness such as your boss or someone from HR — for everyone’s protection.

Karla Miller lives with her family in South Riding, Va. For 16 years, she has written for and edited tax publications. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at wpmagazine@washpost.com.



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