Discipline the few poor workers that poison your labor pool

July 15, 2009
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor, says bite the bullet and discipline the few that poison the labor pool.

An early lesson I learned as a line supervisor, one that holds true at every level of leadership, is that you must deal with people who cause problems. Get over the discomfort of confronting poor performers by keeping in mind the effect your inaction has on the others who perform well every day.

The reason you need to deal with the less-than-stellar performers is only partially for the benefit of the person you’re correcting. It’s mostly to support the morale of the others who are competent and playing by the rules. You deal with the difficult person to establish and maintain the boundaries of acceptable behaviors.

Last year I was working at a chemical plant, where we had performed an assessment and an implementation planning workshop. We got to the point where we were well into implementing the improvements. During a session in which the topic of process discipline arose, one of the craftsmen (we’ll call him Eddy Steady) shook his head in quiet disagreement. I challenged him to explain why he disagreed with the concept of process discipline.


Eddy had been working in the plant for more than 20 years. He was one of those “go-to” guys when the mud hit the fan (if you know what I mean). He said it wasn’t the concept of process discipline — he agreed with the need for that — it was the practice of it. Sensing that this was going to take us off track, I asked him if we could talk about it later, and he agreed.

After the workshop had broken up and most of the participants had gone home, I encountered Eddy in the parking lot. I asked him to tell me what his issue was. He said that there were eight people in his shop, all of whom are put into a rotation for off-shift call-ins. One of the prerequisites for earning call-in status was the ability to perform a particular task. It was a somewhat complicated task, but one that, with a little coaching, could, and should, be mastered by any competent mechanic.

One of the eight people in the shop (we’ll call him Steve Slacker) had been employed at the plant for more than five years and had yet to qualify to perform the prerequisite task. This meant was that seven out of eight people (87.5%) had to assume responsibility for more call-ins than they would have had Steve been qualified to respond. The other shop mates were irritated with Steve, who seemed to avoid qualifying intentionally. The stance meant he couldn’t be called in. In my view, the problem wasn’t with Steve — the problem was with the supervisor who let him get away with it.

When I talked with the supervisor (we’ll call him Moe Needed) about Steve’s situation, he said it was tough enough to find qualified workers, and he would rather have a sub-performing person than an open position; his shop was busy enough.

Moe wasn’t seeing the big picture. His best performers were disgruntled. It surely affected their productivity, and it definitely lowered their opinion of the complacent supervisor.

Most supervisors believe workers quit over compensation. But the majority leaves because of the work situation: poor supervisors, not being listened to, not given growth opportunities. That’s a big disconnect.

The solution to the problem was for Moe to deal with Steve. We coached Moe to state in clear terms his expectations, then to listen to Steve’s explanation of why he hasn’t been qualified yet, to ensure Steve gets the needed training and to provide a date by which Steve needs to be qualified. Moe made it clear that, should Steve fail to comply with this job requirement, a progression of disciplinary action would escalate until either Steve became qualified or he would be deemed incapable of fulfilling the job description and let go.

In the end, it’s much better to have the majority of your workforce supported and productive than it is to avoid dealing with the one person who is causing discontent. Always consider the effect of action or inaction on the other 87.5%.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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