Monday, January 30, 2012

Tech Support Guy On The Bubble

A company employee under a manager’s direct supervision has been performing his work at a substandard level and has been confrontational to his colleagues, who blame him for the hostile work environment which has emerged in the office. It is the supervisor’s responsibility either to improve his performance or to show him the door. Such situations are among a manager’s greatest challenges, and her response to the situation reveals as much about her as about the employee she must confront.

The company seems to be unusually kind-hearted even to allow this employee a last chance.  If an employee is performing poorly, it might be worth it to retrain him, transfer him to another department, or even offer him the option of reduced responsibility in exchange for keeping a paid position. If a capable employee has become hostile, it behooves a manager to find out the cause and remedy the situation, if at all possible. The substandard performance combined with the attitude problem, however, would seem to mandate summary dismissal, especially if the employee has never been very good at his job but has only recently become hostile – perhaps because he was passed over for a promotion on account of his incompetence.

If the manager truly wants to work things out so that the employee can remain in his job, she must do some thinking about the employee and how he reached this point. The assignment scenario states that he works in technical support and has been providing “substandard” service, as evidenced by negative reports from customers and colleagues. What does “substandard” mean, exactly? Does he lack the technical expertise to help customers with their problems? Is he becoming frustrated or giving up too quickly? Is he brusque with callers?  Do his phone manners need work?

Having done my stint in customer service back in the pre-internet Stone Age, I can attest that it is often a stressful, thankless job complicated by the fact that companies usually dump a large notebook (or computer file) of pre-programmed, scripted responses onto the desk of the  support person, which he must use with customers. Callers, meanwhile, are seldom happy when they call a company asking for technical support. They may be angry, frantic, bewildered, frustrated, or downright terrified. They may be ready to throw the equipment out a nearby window – or they may already have done so! Calling a company to receive technical support and being confronted with an artificially cheery voice at the other end spouting scripted responses could be enough to send some such souls right over the edge. They tend to vent their wrath on the first unfortunate representative of the company with whom they come into contact – namely, the intrepid tech support guy. The “substandard” employee may either lack the expertise to solve these customers’ problems, or he may have become frustrated with the treatment he receives from callers - or both.

An employee who hates his job but must keep it in order to go on eating, paying his rent, and supporting his family can quickly reach the point where his unhappiness begins to boil over, as he lashes out at colleagues, superiors – even little old ladies crossing the street. His supervisor’s first responsibility is to call him in for a meeting, designed as much as an opportunity for him to speak about the problems he is having as it is a Reproach. (Cahn and Abigail, 2007, p. 222) Because he is entitled to due process – to face his accusers – the supervisor must gently detail the charges against him, and who made them. She must make him aware that a problem exists, giving him the opportunity to defend himself or to consider his own actions. According to Cahn and Abigail (2007) this commences the Initiation Phase of the conflict resolution process.

Once the employee is talking, the supervisor will know a great deal more about whether the employee can viably remain with the company. If he is angry, he will likely make that anger known, as well as its target or targets; if it is the supervisor herself, he may simply resign rather than even talking with her.  If it emerges that the employee’s substandard performance is a result of insufficient expertise, the supervisor might even offer supplementary training at company expense to enable to employee to do his work better. If he simply hates doing customer service, there may be no point in continuing the discussion, and the supervisor should offer him the opportunity to resign honorably (and with no negative blot on his record) rather than continuing in a job he hates. If the company is large enough, he might be transferred to a position which he finds more congenial. This hashing out of the component elements of the conflict is the all-important Differentiation Phase, as well as the portion of the Repair Ritual which provides a Remedy to the conflict.. (ibid., pp. 159-161, p. 222)

Finally, the supervisor will have the information she needs to move on to the Resolution Phase of the conflict. (ibid., pp. 161-162) She makes the decision regarding whether the employee is still a viable part of the company and its culture. If, for example, his performance and behavior problems are a result of personal issues, she can offer an employee assistance program. If the problem is simply that he hates his job, she can offer the graceful resignation option. If, however, he is desperate to keep the job, she can then detail to him the areas in which he must improve in order to remain with the company. She may offer him educational and personal support, as well as helping him to resolve any intra-office conflicts which may have arisen. She should set a probationary period – three months, perhaps – during which his performance would be evaluated, so that he does not get the idea that if he remains, all of his remaining time with the company will be filled with judgments and recriminations. These steps should ensure that the employee gets a fair opportunity to keep his position, and the company gains a better-performing, better-behaving employee.


Cahn, D. and Abigail, R. (2007) Managing Conflict Through Communication. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

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