How to coach a problem employee: The slacker

Closer supervision and more challenging work can help.
By Matthew Philpott

Some employees have talent, but fail to live up to expectations. They miss deadlines, ask for extensions, and frequently submit work at the last minute.

These employees "always seem busy when it comes time for new assignments, or to hand off tasks," said Jessica Iennarella, CPA, CFF, forensic accountant supervisor at HSNO in Scottsdale, Ariz. "There's always a reason for underperformance. There's always an excuse."

Coaching such an employee can be a challenge. CPAs and career experts suggest the following tips:

Don't be too quick to presume they're lazy. The most important first step is to make sure your problem employee is actually slacking. Failing to keep pace with expectations can have more causes than garden-variety laziness.

"You wouldn't want to label someone as a slacker if indeed they are doing their best and trying their hardest," says Matthew Morey, CPA, CGMA, senior staff regulatory analyst at Entergy in New Orleans. Morey, a 2016 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, says a breakdown in communication could be a sign your underproductive employee is having difficulties with the tasks assigned.

Identifying legitimate slackers is a bit more challenging because they're often skilled at creating the appearance of things getting done, said Lee Riley, a management trainer, consultant, and coach with Nash Consulting in Seattle.

"Ironically, being a serial slacker takes some effort and creativity," Riley said. "To do it well requires a better-than-average understanding of the organization's culture and processes—and therefore its loopholes and weaknesses."

Keep a watchful eye. Whether an underperformer is having difficulty or just slacking, staying engaged with your team is the key to fixing the problem, Morey and Riley said. Keeping the lines of communication open can help your struggling employees find the confidence to admit they need help, while checking in with teammates more often lets layabouts know you're on to them.

Providing all employees comfortable, face-to-face access to a manager can encourage them to come forward with issues. Allowing "anything and everything" to be discussed, Morey said, can help cut off negative behavior before it becomes a problem.

Raise the bar. Your first instinct when faced with a slacker may be to increase the volume of work assignments, but a better solution might be more challenging work assignments.

"If an employee is a serial slacker, it may mean that they aren't feeling challenged enough," said Atlanta-based career coach and author Hallie Crawford. "Talk to them about their role. Try to help this employee set goals that make them feel excited about participating in projects."

Iennarella, a 2016 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, says a lack of passion can send a good employee into an unproductive spiral.

"Find out what they're passionate about and build trust with them by showing that you care about those passions," Iennarella said. If you get them engaged with projects they're deeply interested in, she said, the motivation can carry over and they often will "work harder on things they are less engaged with."

Use empathy. Riley suggests approaching an underproductive employee as a teammate who wishes to be productive but has become stuck in a rut. De-escalating your own frustration, he noted, can help you salvage the situation and find a productive solution for both parties.

"My personal approach is to start with an attitude of understanding that tries to see the issue from their point of view." Riley said. "Even so, what it doesn't do is lessen my resolve to deal with the matter in a clear and forthright manner, up to and including making some difficult decisions."

Matthew Philpott is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at

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