Supervising An Employee With Poor Judgment!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a subordinate who repeatedly shows poor judgment:

I supervise an employee who repeatedly shows poor judgment. She has been counseled by my manager, by HR and by me, and has been referred to EAP. We have started the documentation process, but I understand this process is extremely lengthy. My organization believes in giving everyone every possible opportunity to improve. Because I am the one who works with her daily, I feel my assessment of her use of poor judgment is credible.

My manager, who is out of state, agrees with this assessment. I will go through the motions of trying to teach her, to work with her, etc. but my gut tells me that an employee who is in her mid 40’s is unlikely to learn good judgment no matter how hard I try to work with her.

Signed, Supervisor of Subordinate Unlikely to Improve

Dear Supervisor of Subordinate Unlikely to Improve:

I think we chatted last month, so Dr. Gorden forwarded this to me as well. Is this about the same person we discussed last time? As far as your essential question about whether or not someone can be taught good judgment, that depends upon the areas in which judgments are needed and the overall intelligence, knowledge and skill level of the employee. But let’s assume we’re talking about someone of average intelligence–neither brilliant nor low level. Judgment means to decide about a course of action, a response to a situation or between choices of options.

Good judgment implies that the resulting decision is a wise one. Someone who is new at a job or learning a new task in the same job may not be able to make good judgments because he or she doesn’t have enough knowledge, skills or confidence to do so. In that case, through training and experience they will develop better judgment. Even then, like all of us, they may occasionally exhibit poor judgment.This is also true in our personal maturing process: As teenagers someone may use very poor judgment, but as that person gains knowledge and has experiences that help decision-making, their judgment improves to the point that they can berate their own teenagers for using bad judgment!One of the things supervisors and managers have to guard against is that we sometimes expect employees to have the same ability to make good judgments about work that it has taken us years to develop.

We don’t remember our own fledgling efforts and the times we had to be re-directed, corrected, chided, reprimanded, mentored or supported, to get us to the stage we are today. For that reason there is usually a strong emphasis on training and counseling employees who seem to be floundering at the early stages. It is also why there are probationary times in most jobs–so that employees who lack the intelligence, the mental attitude or the will, to develop, can be removed more easily–but also to allow the new employee to be given more one-on-one training with the full support of the organization, so that lapses in judgment can be quickly corrected and the reasons for it discussed.

One of the least effective phrases a supervisor or manager uses is: “They shouldn’t have to be told!” That should usually be replaced with, “Here’s how I know they understand.” That’s the value of documenting the training and counseling we do to help employees develop good judgment about their work. That brings us though, to the issue of what is the judgment required about. Supervisors and managers can’t teach employees every detail of all of the areas in which effective judgment is needed: How to get to work on time, how to dress, how to communicate and how to interact with others. We can train employees to be better at those things, but the foundation has to have been provided in the development years. That’s why intelligence, life-experiences and other issues play a role in whether or not judgment can be taught.

If judgment is required about fundamental matters of integrity–whether or not to lie, cheat or steal–those are things that a supervisor or manager likely can’t teach if the will to have integrity is not present. But a supervisor or manager could teach about how to apply the fundamentals of ethics to the job being done at the time. For example, an employee just recently assigned to purchasing, may not make good judgments about avoiding conflict of interest unless he or she is taught about what things to avoid. What if the judgment involves how to do some aspect of work–should the forms be turned in if they are not complete, should vendor requirements be overlooked if it seems practical, should the supervisor be notified if there is a problem with the payroll that will delay it, or should someone who is complaining be treated courteously or told to call the CEO if they are unhappy? Those are work judgment issues that can be trained about, with the degree of success based on the things I’ve already mentioned: Intelligence, life experiences, confidence and so forth.

I may have mentioned to you before, my usual comment when someone wonders if a failure to perform effectively is the result of lack of ability or lack of willingness or confidence: The “You’re Fired” rule. If the person thought they would be fired immediately if they didn’t do something correctly or make the correct decision about a matter, could they do it correctly? If they couldn’t, even if they thought they’d be fired, they need one or a mixture of counseling, training, support, a change in some aspect of the work, reassignment or, if nothing helps after a reasonable amount of time–dismissal. If they could do the task correctly and use good judgment if they thought they’d get fired otherwise, they need one or a mixture of counseling, re-direction, negative sanctions, support, a change in some aspect of work, reassignment or dismissal.

Training isn’t needed, except as a way to provide documentation of the effort. In the case you mention, you say that HR and others are working on a problem with you, but you know it will take time. That is simply one of those things that are a reality. Most employers are not anxious to fire someone unless they can see blatant rules violations. Work performance, especially for new employees, is very difficult for most organizations to define and evaluate for dismissal. So, it is likely you’ll have to wait through the process. However, I would ensure–without being a pain in the neck about it–that HR and others are aware of ongoing problems of a serious nature. Not every little error, but the major ones…enough to reinforce that you don’t want to give up on this. I hope these thoughts answer the specifics of your question and the philosophical concept behind it!Judgment is learned by imitation, training, and coaching. The instructor and instructed are jointly responsible for that learning we label as WEGO.

Tina Lewis Rowe