This Is What to Do If an Employment Relationship Deteriorates

No job is meant to be “until death do us part.” Employment is a theoretical deal: The employer is willing to pay a certain amount of money for an employee’s successful execution of a set of roles and responsibilities.

But often these relationships sour. I’ve observed many employees who have outlasted their welcome or let their performance slide.

Whose Responsibility Is It, Anyway?

In some cases, responsibility falls on the employee. They may have outside interests or concerns that distract them and make them unable to perform. Or perhaps they don’t like the job, but need the money, so they keep dragging themselves to work.

But in general, responsibility for a deteriorating relationship falls on the employer. Either they mistakenly chose someone who could not sustain performance, or their management approach or implementation is insufficient to ensure an employee is focused in the right direction and on track — or to help them recognize when there’s a problem, and give employees support to get back on.

Common Types of Employer-Employee Relationships Gone Sour

Employer-employee relationships go wrong in many different ways. Here are a few typical examples:

  1. A senior executive was hired for his amazing track record. But once he was on board, all he did was apply the approaches he had used before —in both technical work and interpersonal interactions — even though his new company had a distinctly different culture and philosophy of interacting with its audience. Once he had run through his technical repertoire, his cultural mismatch became painfully evident.
  2. A senior service rep was hired into a new role that was left for him to define. Due to insufficient employer oversight, the rep narrowed the job to only its most comfortable and satisfying activities, shirking challenging responsibilities and leaving many implementation gaps. Because leadership neglected to make specific corrections promptly, the rep was shocked when he eventually learned that his work was insufficient. Great resentment ensued on both sides, and the relationship never fully recovered, although the rep demonstrated somewhat more effort after getting consistent feedback, including tactical specifics.
  3. An experienced director was on a real growth trajectory. Her work was consistently good and she seemed content, so her management focused on other areas that needed more attention. But when she wasn’t recognized for her efforts, her performance started to flag.
  4. A turnaround consultant was hired to stabilize a work group that was suffering from poor execution. Initially, everyone was grateful for her “steady hand on the tiller,” but once things stabilized, it became clear that she lacked the skills and drive to get the organization to the next level. Eventually, she became a bottleneck and pressure point.

How to Get an Employee Back on Track

What’s clear from these situations — and many others I’ve seen — is that sometimes leadership doesn’t realize things have gone awry until they’re completely off the rails. That’s why it’s hugely important to monitor how well the employee is delivering. Insufficient leadership attention to an employee’s scaffolding and support almost always diminishes their effectiveness.

What kind of attention works best? In my experience, it’s personal concern for the employee’s well-being and ongoing development of their potential. When personal, developmental attention is lacking, or if leadership assumes early success will continue inevitably, things go south with amazing regularity.

The bottom line? Coaching and correcting aren’t enough. That combination works with relatively new hires, when there’s reasonable expectation that an employee won’t know the best way to do something, or is mistaken about what’s important or most desirable; in those cases, a correction at the right time can make a real difference.

What If the Relationship Is Damaged Beyond Repair?

After someone has been with you for a while, discrepancies in performance are more often a case of dissatisfaction or withdrawal than merely not knowing. Sometimes the situation will improve through increased attention; other times, the best way forward is for an employee to move on. So ask yourself these questions before taking any next step:

  • Do you still care about this employee and have confidence that they can contribute wholeheartedly?
  • What’s good in — and for — that person?
  • Can they be their best self in your operation?
  • Would your operation have to change significantly to keep them happy and growing?
  • Do you have the appetite to make those changes, even if they’re difficult, if it takes you in a direction that’s positive overall?

It’s crucial to go on record about performance gaps, so the employee has the best possible shot to repair their performance and the relationship. But if you’re convinced there’s inadequate capacity for growth and change, it’s better to come to an amicable arrangement for an exit, rather than linger uncomfortably.

Sometimes it’s best for both parties if the employee leaves to work in a new place that needs and appreciates what they can accomplish, free from the tinges of resentment that may develop by staying in one place. Helping them go to their next opportunity also gives you the chance for a clean start. If you screen replacement candidates closely and carefully, what you lose in the old employee’s experience you may gain in a new hire’s fresh attitude. Just give the new employee plenty of attention when they start — and ever afterwards.

Onward and upward —


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