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Rehab or Reject Problem Employees: When Technical Skills Aren't Enough

When employee work styles or poor soft skills imperil performance, you gotta do something: rehab or reject.

When Christopher Saah was promoted to CIO of Transwestern, a privately held commercial real estate company, he sized up his team. Of the 34 people on staff, one stood out as a particular management challenge.

While technically astute, she maintained strict adherence to logic and process, which sometimes left customers cold. When the company's brokers asked for software changes that would make it easier for them to access data from the road, for instance, she would respond by listing each piece of information missing from the request, along with numerous reasons the changes would not work -- all in excruciating technical detail. "You could literally see the [brokers'] eyes glaze over," Saah says.

Discouraged, he confided in his wife, "This is not going to work. My first challenge is going to be to replace her."

At least that was his gut reaction. Like many CIOs at midsized companies, Saah had little training on how to manage problem staff, especially technical staff, many of whom have spent their careers honing their technical skills at the expense of people skills.

Problem employees come in all stripes. Some are chronically late, some drink or nap on the job, some have been known to embezzle. Francis Juliano, CIO and chief marketing officer at the Wine Enthusiast Cos., a privately held marketer of wine accessories, publications and events in Elmsford, N.Y., has encountered all these problems during his career, though not necessarily among his own employees.

In a past job, Juliano discovered that a co-worker liked to sleep during the day so much that he came prepared with a pillow and blanket. The habit came to light when the man's child was hurt at school and his co-workers couldn't rouse him to answer his office door. When they burst in, they discovered him, supine, under his desk.

While firing troublesome employees may seem efficient, it can be especially problematic for midmarket companies, which often rely more heavily on individual expertise because they don't have deep benches. When a problem staffer is also the only programmer who has sought-after skills such as security or business analysis expertise or Web services know-how, the CIO is not in a good position to discipline the employee, let alone fire him.

This was first published in May 2007

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