My employees have been complaining about a coworker that takes long lunches whenever I am out of the office for a meeting or vacation. The employee doesn’t report the time in our time tracking system. I’ve talked to her about the situation, and she says she doesn’t do that.
Last time I was out of the office, it happened again. Several employees complained, and they’re frustrated. Obviously, this isn’t good for team morale. I’d love to stay in my office at all times, but I regularly do business with clients offsite. What is the best way to address this when I’m not there to see it happen? When it’s her word against mine, how can I ensure she is productive?
Summary of Advice Received
Build a Better Management Mousetrap
How to deal with an employee who tattles and breaks the rules
by Meryl K. Evans, Editor, Professional Services Journal
Most of us have seen siblings approach a mother with a complaint.
“Mom, John pushed me,” says David.
“No, he hit me first,” John says.
“I did not!” David says. This repeats back and forth.
It’s a difficult situation for a parent who didn’t see the incident. A smart parent doesn’t assume one child is responsible not even on past history. Kids will find a time to take advantage of a situation to get someone else in trouble.
It’s sad that an employee takes advantage of a manager being out of the office, but that’s work life, and it happens more often than we think. While more than one employee is complaining about the “mouse,” the manager cannot rely on that alone.
“Unfortunately, the issue as described can be deeper than long lunches while the boss is away. There is often a critical team development issue lying beneath the surface,” says Stephen Ross, founder and president of Now That’s Leadership!
Readers and experts encourage taking action to address the issue:
- Assign an acting manager.
- Do a “bed check.”
- Talk to the employee and team.
- Review the employee’s tasks and goals.
Got another great tip for dealing with sneaky employees? Join the conversation by leaving a comment. Or ask your own question.
Assign an acting manager
Whenever you’re away from the office, assign a trusted employee as an acting manager to be in charge. Let your employees know about the assignment and that the acting manager will document absences. If the employee takes long lunches or disappears during work hours without a business reason, you will have documentation to support how you handle the employee.
“If you don’t have somebody that you’re developing in both leadership and management skills, that’s a gap in your responsibilities. The organization is entitled to consistency and reliability, and nobody can provide that 100 percent of the time,” says Gregory Lay, trainer and columnist with Heartily Working.
Do a “bed check”
It sounds like a joke, but some managers do “bed checks” at start time, the start of lunch time, the end of lunch time and before quitting time. A manager’s boss did this in an organization where Linda Carlson of Parenting Press worked. She also suggests holding meetings with the employee that run until lunchtime or begin right after lunch ends.
You could also do a bed check by calling the employee at specific times. Dan Seidman, founder SalesAutopsy.com says. “If she answers, she’ll believe chances are that’s the only call coming. Later, after normal lunchtime is over, call again. You’ll get no answer but will have a record of the call,” says Seidman. This helps with documentation, especially in today’s litigious society where you may need to build a case against someone.
Instead of calling the employee, another option is to let the employees know you’re heading out for a two-hour meeting. Come back an hour early with a plausible explanation. “If you don’t catch her, this could be enough to stop her now that she sees the possibility of getting caught. Do this a few times and sporadically,” says Mai Nguyen. “If you do catch her, have a one-on-one about the company’s time-logging policies without mentioning her peers’ comments. If you don’t ever catch her, great. Perhaps, the other coworkers are exaggerating her extra five to 15 minutes because they are anxious to go on their lunches, and the extra five to 15 minutes may not affect her productivity. I’d rather be the trusting boss than the micro-manager.”
Talk to the employee and team
Parents often urge siblings to work issues out or face the consequences. In the office, the problem goes beyond the sneaky employee and the tattling team. They need you as the catalyst to work it out.
You could get unquestionable evidence by adding video cameras, installing tracking software on the employee’s computer or encouraging employees to use cell phones to catch the mouse, but is that the kind of culture you want to build?
“Motivate the employees to fix it. Do they want to start competing with each other, thinking that if she gets away with an extra 10 minutes, then they should get an extra 20? What are the impacts of that kind of cultural shift for each employee and for the team? What would a healthier culture be — one which the entire team would like to develop and maintain?” says Deborah Brown, South Florida business coach. “The more that your team makes its own decisions, resolves problems and supports its own culture, the stronger your business will be while you’re out of the office.”
Kimberly McCabe, freelance marketing consultant, recommends exploring whether this is a cultural issue. “We live in a hectic world, and some people will fight to make the team more effective and some people will complain — some people will just take advantage of opportunities,” McCabe says. She once joined a company where employees were afraid of the boss. As a result, they did whatever they could to always look busy and stressed, plus they felt proud of the fact they skipped lunch.
McCabe says, “From my perspective, they were all followers and were quite happy to point out to the boss anyone who did not meet their norms. I knew I worked more efficiently than my colleagues and was frustrated by the culture of skipping lunch and staying late to impress the boss. You need to understand the motivations of those complaining and the one being complained about.”
Review the employee’s performance, tasks and goals
What kind of employee is the person? Is she making her deadlines, producing high-quality work and reaching her goals? Marc Holmes says, “As long as delivery occurs — who cares what her working style is? Everyone should know that others are allowed to work in whatever way makes them meet their goals.”
Instead of putting the employee on the defensive, try a supportive approach by telling her you will be there if she needs help to improve her job performance. “There’s perhaps a 50 percent chance that she’ll actually respond to your invitation, but never stop offering. It’s the right thing to do, and you don’t want to miss the opening if it does appear,” says Gregory Lay. This “door is always open” approach reinforces she’s expected to do her job and is not an exception to the rules.
Another thing to consider is whether the employee has enough work to do or motivation to want to stay in the office. “Give her something more important and engaging to do than the stultifying, life-sapping tasks she is trying to escape. Alternatively, give her goals to complete in a certain time, and if she completes them, she can take half the day off, as long as they’re done,” says Steve Silberberg, owner of Fitpacking.com.
What other ways would you deal with this office dilemma? Got other work issues? Ask a question.
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