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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How to Handle a New Employee Who's Off to a Rough Start

I know how nerve-wracking the first day of a new job can be—so as a manager, I try to give my new employees a little bit of slack.

But even with this lenient mindset, I was completely taken aback when my one of my new hires took multiple personal phone calls from her desk, texted throughout her first department-wide meeting, and left for the night without a glance in my direction (and before the clock even struck five)—all on her very first day at the office.

Talk about a bad first impression!

But, even though she got started on the wrong foot, it was my responsibility to figure out if and how I could help turn her performance around. So, before you jump to any conclusions (i.e., that it’s time to post the hiring ad again), it’s important to pinpoint what caused the rough start and how you can nip any issues in the bud.

Whether a new employee doesn’t click with the team, can’t seem to catch on to her job responsibilities as easily as you expected, or totally ignores company policies, here are several strategies I’ve learned to get you and your new employee back on the right track.

Cut Some Slack

Like I said, the first day of a new job can be stressful. So during those first few interactions, it’s not uncommon for a new employee to inadvertently blurt out something offensive (“Oh, you went to the University of Miami? That was my fallback school—if I hadn’t gotten into Yale”) or just plain awkward (“This job was my second choice; I had to settle for a lower salary than I actually deserve”).

Before you spend too much time dwelling on a negative first impression, remember that meeting a new boss and team for the first time can be intimidating, and nervous chatter can easily turn into a regrettable foot-in-mouth situation. Don’t hold a grudge because of an off-kilter conversation or two—so as long as it doesn’t have a negative impact on your clients or the rest of the team (more on that later), cut your new employee some slack and move on.

Set Them Straight

I remember clearly, on my employee’s first day, looking over at her cubicle (where she was supposed to be training with a current employee) and overhearing a rather loud, personal conversation she was having on her cell phone. I couldn’t believe she would be so tactless on her very first day of work, and I immediately concluded she didn’t care about her new job and wasn’t interested in impressing me or the rest of the team.

But I knew I had to give her a fair chance—and that meant sitting her down and setting her straight about the cultural norms and expectations of the office. Who knows? Maybe she came from a company with a lax cell phone policy and was used to that kind of freedom.

So, if your employee doesn’t immediately grasp the nuances of the office, you may have to blatantly (but nicely) tell her that everyone actually arrives at 8:45 AM—not 9 AM—or that “long lunches” don’t fly. By confronting this kind of issue as it happens, you can resolve it quickly and painlessly—instead of letting your frustration grow while you wait for your employee to figure it out on her own.

Give it Time

You’ve heard that time heals all wounds—and that can include first impressions, too. A negative initial opinion can have you jumping to all sorts of conclusions (e.g., “Did I hire the wrong person?” or “Is she even qualified?”). And even if those thoughts seem justified—like when you discover your new employee is having major trouble with PowerPoint, even though proficiency was a requirement of the job—force yourself to wait it out a little bit.

This sounds counterintuitive, but in such a new and stressful situation, employees often come across as nervous or hesitant, make mistakes, and ask a lot of questions. But when given some time to adjust and get comfortable with a new position, they’ll likely adapt to their surroundings, gain confidence, learn from their peers and teammates, and eventually master the ins and outs of their jobs.

Don’t just sit back and watch, though. As a manager, you should be providing your employees with the right resources and training to strengthen any areas in which their skills are a little lacking. So, block out time for your employee to shadow a more experienced co-worker, suggest some online training courses, or arrange a weekly one-on-one meeting to talk through issues and discuss processes. (In fact, you should be doing this no matter what.) When you provide the tools, your employee has the best chance of rising to the occasion and proving she can succeed.

Trust Your Gut (And the Facts)

If it’s been several weeks and you still can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong, your concerns may point to something deeper than a few misplaced intentions. After you’ve discussed what your employee can do to improve, offered resources for support, and given it plenty of time, start listening and observing: If you haven’t seen a difference in her behavior, you’ll probably start to hear the same concerns from your team and clients.

With that in mind, are you 100% sure she’s right for your team? Of course, the last thing you want to do is fire someone who hasn’t really had a chance to prove herself. But if the issues linger and the negative qualities you first noticed have manifested themselves in more ways that just an off-putting comment or two (and are impacting your team culture or quality of work), you may have grounds to re-evaluate your hiring decision.

As a manager, you’re in a challenging position that requires you to keep your team cohesive and productive, no matter what. So if a new employee gets off to a rough start, don’t immediately throw in the towel—but don’t ignore it, either. With some patience, time, and important conversations, you can get past that initial impression and focus on driving your team forward.

Photo of bored employee courtesy of Shutterstock.

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