8 Signs Your Star Employee Is All Talk, No Work

If you expected a winner but got a loser last time you hired, here are 5 ways to change things for the better now and the next time around.
April 16, 2014

Have you ever hired an individual who appeared to be a star performer but ended up disappointing you? It's not unusual to come across someone who looks the part and talks the loudest but fails to deliver results. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise."  

Some low performers can go undetected for ages because they've mastered the art of  work evasion. This hurts your company's bottom line and has a detrimental effect on the rest of your team. For example, 87 percent of employees report that working with a low performer made them want to change jobs. And 93 percent said working with these type of people decreased their productivity. High performers often report that low performers aren't held accountable and that they're often forced to clean up the mess made by these lazy employees.

What are some of the tell-tale signs that can help you detect low performers before they cause damage to team morale? Here are eight clues to watch for:

  1. Spending more time arguing about how a project should be tackled than it would take to actually do the work
  2. Being adept at playing the blame game
  3. Overburdening assistants by delegating too many tasks that are their own responsibility
  4. Spending more time dealing with conflicts with others on the team than on accomplishing team goals
  5. Procrastinating and working on their own priorities rather than on what was agreed upon
  6. Disappearing for long stretches during core hours
  7. Often being late for meetings
  8. Frequently leaving early without telling anyone

Rather than turn a blind eye to this conduct, think about how you can put a stop to it and turn a low performer into a high performer. Following are a few things to consider, as well as some strategies for improving your hiring process for future hires.

1. Set up a Cycle of Accountability

Assign a project and clearly define what's expected from the rogue employee. Set mutually agreed-upon milestones for achieving the project goals, and let him know you'll hold him accountable for what he agreed to do.

Once you've set these goals, don't let the milestones lapse without checking in. If you need help in this regard, use a program such as Monkey on Your Back. This program allows you to create a Monkey for each task you delegate, then sends an email reminder to the employee regarding the task and emails you when the date for the task has expired. 

2. Tap Into Personal Motivators

Get to know your employees on a personal level, so you can find out their personal goals and what motivates them. If you help them succeed, they're more likely to help you succeed. One way to do this is to search for "alternative currencies." This idea comes from Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge. Here's how the tool works:

First, write down your needs. For example, you might need your employee to take more ownership for the success of the business. Next, write down your employee's needs. For instance, she wants to feel equitably rewarded for her efforts to increase your business success. Now make a list of the alternative currencies—tangible and intangible resources—that she can provide that satisfies your needs. For example, maybe you'd like her to submit timely expense reports or contribute cost-saving ideas. Finally, list the alternative currencies that you control that might satisfy the employee's needs. For instance, you could provide more opportunities for telecommuting or could institute flex time. When you meet with the employee, ask a lot of questions to uncover other potential needs. Then search for the best fit between needs and alternative currencies.

As Kouzes and Posner note, "You'll be pleasantly surprised at the creativity of the negotiation and the collaboration result." Give it a try, and see what happens.

3. Use a Leadership IQ Survey to Increase Engagement

Leadership IQ, a consulting company in Atlanta, developed an employee engagement survey that questions employees about their organization, their leader and themselves. The self part asks employees to agree or disagree with such statements as, "When I get an assignment, I find out how it fits into the organization structure and goals," or "I start every day with a plan." All participating employees receive an advanced, personal analytic of their engagement level and what they can do to improve. This helps employees feel empowered and more engaged than they do with traditional engagement surveys that release results to management who then have to come up with an engagement plan for each employee.

This process can be more effective in driving the engagement of low performers because, as research shows, 94 percent of employee engagement is driven by what the employees themselves do. (To learn more, watch how Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, describes the survey.)

4. Improve Your Hiring Process

Improve the odds that you're hiring the right person by involving other team members in the recruitment process. At Google, for example, interviewers include the applicant's potential teammates or colleagues in other departments. This helps the company see how the prospective employee might collaborate and fit in the company overall. Not only that, an independent committee of Googlers reviews feedback from all the interviewers. This helps lessen the chance of hiring mistakes.

5. Seek Employee Referrals

Studies reported by Achievers, a San Francisco-based employee rewards and recognition software company, show that new hires resulting from referral programs routinely produce the highest on-the-job performance of any recruiting source. One effective way to handle employee referrals is by setting up searchlight meetings, which are brief, informal gatherings inviting employees to provide referrals. It's an efficient method to get many high-quality referrals in the shortest time and a fun way to build a culture of referrals.

Go further by seeking referrals from people you trust, not only inside but outside the company. To assist you in this regard, YesGraph, a company in Palo Alto, California, created a system that helps individuals and companies recruit via referral. The process allows those recruiting to send a short job description to their entire network on Facebook, LinkedIn and Gmail to quickly uncover referrals from long lists of contacts. You can try this tool for free here.

If you made a mistake in judging that one of your new hires would be a star employee, you don't have to put up with the subsequent disappointment when he or she fails to perform at star level. When employees don't pull their weight, it's your responsibility as a leader to step in and do whatever it takes to motivate and manage these low performers—don't let the burden fall on your high performers to pick up the slack. Send a clear message to any low performers in your company that the free ride is over. By getting involved and offering solutions, you may end up with a star performer after all.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Read more articles on hiring & firing.

Photo: Thinkstock