CPA Insider

How to handle poor performers

Start by promoting the right people to be managers.
By Doug Blizzard

I obviously don’t work for your CPA firm, but my experience tells me there is a good chance that you have subpar performers who are draining its productivity, profit, and growth. I wish I was wrong—but I see it everywhere, every day, in every industry.

The hard truth is that subpar workers are actually a byproduct of subpar management. You can’t fix the problems with your workers until you address the deficiencies in your managers.

But first, let’s explore just why subpar performers are such a problem. Poor performance generally comes in three categories. Employees who:

  • Don’t know what to do. Many employees regularly wander around our workplaces not knowing what is expected of them. This can generally be solved by managers who provide clearer expectations. Most people will perform just fine when they know what to do.
  • Can’t do what you’re asking. Sometimes we can salvage this “can’t-do” category with training. Sometimes, though, training will not correct the performance and in those cases the employee should be transferred to an open job they can do—or they need to go work for someone else.
  • Won’t do what you’re asking. This is the most dangerous category. Employees who won't do what you're asking create tremendous problems in the workplace every day. Whether they vocalize their refusal or use more subtle activities, like slowing down, or overlooking things, there is only one solution for these people: They need to leave, and soon.

Subpar workers translate into missed deadlines, poor customer service, and sloppy processes. Moreover, top performers don’t appreciate having to do additional work to cover for their uninspired co-workers. Frustrated overworked top performers will either leave or will actually start to scale back their effort.

This is a particularly pertinent point for CPA firms, which now find themselves in something of a talent war for the best accountants. Firm leaders often look to pay and benefits as a way to attract and retain talent. While that’s part of the answer, people stay at their jobs for other reasons as well—and the quality of their direct manager is near the top of the list.

Why management sometimes takes a back seat

The art of management sometimes takes a back seat in professional service environments, in part because so many people are so highly educated. Firm leaders sometimes make the mistake of believing that because people are so accomplished, they don’t need a lot of “managing.”

But that’s a grave mistake. In a professional service firm, your people are the product you’re delivering to clients. So what kind of employees do you want interfacing with clients? You want ones that are motivated, productive, and see how they fit in the big picture, right?

Conversely, you don’t want an employee who does just enough to get by or one that is biding time until he or she can find another opportunity. And you certainly don’t want a deceitful employee.

The type of employee you have is directly related to the quality of management at your firm. And quality management starts with getting the right person in the supervisor’s chair.

The training part of management is easier than you might think. There are hundreds of good courses out there to train a manager to identify and address poor performance. However, we often promote the wrong people simply because they are technically proficient.

That approach can lead to your firm’s “losing” a great accountant in exchange for gaining a lousy manager. Think about the sports world. Most great coaches were average (or worse) players themselves. The sporting world has learned that playing and coaching are two totally different skill sets that need to be assessed and developed. Companies that lead every industry have also figured out that you need great coaches and great players and the former doesn’t always have to come from the latter. If that means redesigning compensation systems to reward technically proficient workers so that they don’t have to go into management to get a raise, so be it.

Hire slow and fire fast

Once you have the proper people in management roles, give them the support they need to address the problems caused by subpar workers. In some cases, training and mentoring will be enough. In others, your managers will have to replace subpar workers with new employees.

“Hire slow and fire fast,” are good words to live by for managers. Yet I frequently find companies actually do the opposite: They hire quickly and impulsively and then take forever to separate from the problem employee. Many performance problems are really hiring problems in disguise. So try taking more time assessing candidates. And once you know someone is a poor performer, address it quickly. Fairly and respectfully, yes, but quickly.

Who doesn't get this right? Ask yourself that question the next time as a consumer you have a bad customer experience at the hands of a problem employee. Then, ask yourself if any of your clients have the same question when they work with your firm. Think about it.

Doug Blizzard

Doug Blizzard is the vice president for membership for CAI, a nonprofit employers’ association handling HR, compliance, and people development.

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