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Dear Candid Boss,

How can I better manage an employee whose work seems to alternate between excellent and sloppy? How can I get the consistent quality that I know they can produce?

Signed,
Tired of the Unpredictable

Dear Tired of the Unpredictable

I feel your pain! If an employee sometimes delivers amazing results, and other times makes sloppy mistakes, the value of the excellent work is greatly reduced—for you, for the team, and for the employee.

There are three likely scenarios, and it’s important that you know which one you are dealing with. Talking one-on-one can give you a better sense of whether that employee is:

  • Unaware of the issue and in denial
  • Aware of it and dismissive of its importance
  • Aware and upset about it


If the Employee’s Unaware and In Denial…

Be prepared to discuss the details of several specific examples of sloppy work. If the employee begins offering excuses for the first one, reassure the person that you will listen to their point of view in a moment, but that you want to make sure they understand the whole situation before they respond.

When you share your examples of lackluster work, show don’t tell. Don’t say, “It was sloppy.” You need to be more specific. Say, “There were 57 typos that spellcheck could’ve caught.”


If the Employee’s Aware and Dismissive...

Make the impact of the sloppy work really clear—including the consequences for the team. For example, do other people have to spend extra time double-checking this employee’s work?

Most importantly, make the impact of the sloppy work on the employee’s reputation and career prospects really clear. Careless mistakes generally cause others to question a person’s work consistently, so they don’t get “credit” for the exceptional work they do—and could potentially cause them to lose out on promotions or even lead to termination.


If the Employee’s Aware and Upset…

Be prepared to show that you care about the person’s growth and are dedicated to helping them solve whatever is causing the problem. If the employee knows about the problem and is upset about it, there’s no need to beat them over the head with specific examples or the impact.

Instead, take some time to show compassion—but don’t back off your challenge that they can and must do better. Reassure the employee that you have confidence in their abilities. Be prepared to discuss the details of specific examples of excellent work, and what made those particularly exceptional. That empowers the employee with information they can use to improve their other work.



In all cases, end by asking the employee what their plan is to deliver top-notch work more consistently. If they have a clear plan of action, you know you’ve gotten through. If they don’t, either they still don’t see it as a problem or don’t know what to do about it—in which case you’ll need to work out the specific expectations for that behavior change.

This is a tough problem, but here’s the good news: This person’s clearly capable of doing a great job. Ignoring the issue puts a burden on your team, on you, and ultimately doesn’t do that person any favors. But, helping them figure out why those sloppy mistakes occur is key to helping the person do great work.



This article is part of our monthly Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our coaches are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask a Candid Boss in the subject line.

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