How to move an employee to a new department more suited to their expertise without causing alarm.
Workplace Doctor: Moving difficult worker needs to be done tactfully
I have a difficult employee who I would like to move to a different department. He does not have the right expertise for the section he works in and his lack of knowledge can sometimes be an obstruction for the rest of the team. At the same time I do not want to offend him as his skills could certainly be helpful elsewhere in the company. How do I shift him to his new position without causing alarm? MM, Sharjah
I know lots of managers who find it easier to deal with the pragmatic, task-orientated aspects of management than these more sensitive areas. But trust me when I tell you that successful managers have to be competent at having conversations which they know will not be well received. You say this person lacks expertise, so there is a controlling need to do something about this. I think from your question you realise the decision is not whether you have the conversation; it is how to have the conversation.
But first, just pause. Your role is to develop the capabilities of the people you manage. Is the job-based competence standard you are setting too high? Even if, on reflection, there is room for improvement in his performance, ask yourself if you have set a reasonable time-frame for the improvement to happen and if you have done everything you can to help. Is it really the case that he cannot be helped to develop the expertise? The message you send the rest of the team by moving him is a pretty stark one – be sure you understand the consequences of moving him rather than improving him before you make the final choice.
Your organisation’s HR function can help you to develop individuals; it can also help you to move people who do not and cannot reach the required standard. If there is an HR policy which covers the issue you are trying to address this will make your conversation easier. Be sure you know exactly what the policy is and how it applies to the issue you are facing. The policy can give structure and content to your conversation, but if he is better informed about policy than you are, you do run the risk of looking pretty foolish.
So let’s assume that you are going to go ahead and shift him into another team. You can’t enter a conversation such as this expecting to make it up as you go along. This really is a case of failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Think back and identify what has gone well and what has gone badly in difficult conversations you have had in the past. Use this as the basis for this and other such conversations in the future.
It is vital to be absolutely clear about your action and the thinking behind it. There can be no ambiguity or opportunity for misinterpretation. Also vital to the success of these conversations is your ability to understand the individual to whom you will be talking and to anticipate how he may react to what is being said. Get the simple things right: don’t have this type of conversation in front of others; when either of you are in a hurry; when other things are pressing on you; if you are already angry or impatient with the individual. Also, don’t create a shopping list of criticisms and then go through them one by one.
Concentrate on the positives: you are moving him to a role where he can maximise his strengths and leverage his expertise. Present this as an opportunity not as a punishment. If you must give him some constructive critical feedback then make sure that it not only tells him what he has been doing that is not up to standard, but also tells him what steps he might take to improve his performance in these areas, even if these steps are taken in another department and under another team leader.
Remember it’s good to create a culture in which everyone frequently has these open and honest conversations about what is and what isn’t going well as a team and individually. The more frequent these conversations are, the better people become at having them and at hearing them; this in turn means more and more difficult subjects can be openly discussed.
Doctor’s prescription: When you do shut a door for an individual, telling them to leave your team for another, do it softly.
Roger Delves is the director of the Ashridge Masters in Management at Ashridge Business School and co-author of The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast solutions to Everyday Challenges. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on any work issues, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague
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