This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
Staff behavior and performance problems are among an editor’s greatest challenges and opportunities.
The staff member who is performing poorly or behaving inappropriately can bring a newsroom down and in most cases an editor needs to deal decisively with it. The performance and/or behavior can spread. The tolerance of the performance and/or behavior sets a standard for other staff members. And your newsroom is too thinly staffed for your good performers to be stretched a bit more to cover for the slacker.
That’s the challenge. The opportunity is that a successful discussion with the top editor at a critical moment can help turn a career around and turn a problem into a productive staff member.
The needed conversation is uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s one of an editor’s most important moments of leadership.
You can and should deal with most performance issues through praise when a staff member does well and challenges to improve, but sometimes a problem of performance or behavior is serious enough that you need a blunt discussion.
You need to learn early whether a union contract or human resources policies dictate how to handle discipline of staff members. Everything I say here is guidance for operating within those written boundaries. I also advise dealing with problems before they reach the serious stage where formal discipline is needed. It’s also a good idea to consult with HR well before you reach the formal discipline stage. As a new editor, you may not know what warrants formal discipline. And your HR colleagues have experience that will help in dealing with all these issues before they reach that stage.
Whether the problem is behavior or performance, your response varies depending on the severity of the issue and on whether it’s a one-time or recurring problem.
To be clear, when I mean performance, I am talking about someone whose work doesn’t meet standards. Behavior issues (with the exception of ethics problems) are generally not directly related to performance: annoying, immature, unethical or offensive conduct that is harmful among the staff or in the community. (Of course some staff members certainly could present both performance and behavior problems.)
I’ll address behavior and performance issues each shortly. But some key questions cover all situations:
- How bad is the problem really?
- What is the effect in the newsroom?
- What is the effect in the community?
- Does the staff member understand expectations?
- Do you know the full context?
- Does this merit formal discipline?
Is it really that bad?
I recommend dealing firmly and swiftly with serious problems. I also recommend choosing your battles judiciously. If the staff member’s performance or behavior isn’t causing problems in the newsroom or the community, don’t try to swat a fly with the proverbial sledgehammer. If someone is just annoying you, maybe you need to develop a thicker skin or just have a casual conversation. If someone’s performance is generally good except for one weakness, perhaps the situation calls for tolerance or positive coaching rather than a difficult conversation.
I’m not saying you don’t deal with the small problems. But don’t treat a small problem like a big one. Your staff is going to be imperfect. Accept that and don’t waste your time and energy seeking big solutions to little problems.
On the other hand, don’t minimize a problem that is serious by its very nature. If someone says something that borders on being offensive because of its racial or sexual content, don’t wait until the staff member crosses the border to address the matter. A quick cautionary conversation before the problem gets out of hand can save lots of time and even lawsuits.
What is the effect in the newsroom?
Bad behavior or performance can cause serious problems in a newsroom. Sometimes you can’t investigate easily how the staff is responding to a situation. Your inquiries might exacerbate a situation or cause a confidentiality problem in handling the issue later.
Listen and observe to learn whether other staffers are bothered by offensive behavior or scornful of weak performance. Another editor might have a better handle on how the newsroom is reacting to a problem.
Your tolerance of poor performance can lower standards for the newsroom or cause resentment or burnout as others have to do more because the poor performer is doing less. Your tolerance of harmful behavior can contribute to a “hostile environment,” a legal term you don’t want to be discussing with a lawyer.
What is the effect in the community?
Your urgency in dealing with a situation grows if an employee’s poor performance or misconduct is noticed outside of the newsroom. Your credibility is too important to hope an employee will improve. You need to deal with the problem firmly and swiftly.
Are expectations clear?
The coarse language or relaxed atmosphere of a newsroom might create an expectation that anything goes. If a staff member has crossed the line into use of sexist language, for instance, an important part of the conversation might be making lines and expectations clear. You don’t need to deal with someone using “bitch” as a verb (it may happen daily), but you would need to address the situation if a man addressed or referred to a female colleague as a “bitch.”
Performance expectations need to be clear, too. Maybe you’ve told your staff they need to start using social media more and a particular staff member is tweeting links to his stories and spouting political opinions, but not engaging effectively with the community. He might think he’s embracing social media when you need to make your expectations clearer.
Sometimes expectations change. Early in my career, newsrooms tolerated a wide range of vulgar behavior by men that would and should be punished today as forms of sexual harassment. Digital technology is changing expectations as journalists who used to just take notes and write stories are now expected to tweet and Tout. If expectations for behavior or performance change in your newsroom, you need to make those expectations clear. And in addressing these issues with staff members, you need to reinforce that the expectations have changed.
What’s the context?
Context matters as much in employee behavior and performance as it does in news stories. Context takes into account various factors:
- Past behavior. For a staff member with an exemplary record, you might ignore a minor offense or handle it with a casual conversation. For a staff member with whom you already have addressed this issue in formal discipline, the same offense might result in a serious rebuke or be the final straw.
- Overall performance. If a journalist who is a standout in most respects makes her first error in more than a year, misspelling a name, you might handle that in a quick, collegial conversation. If someone has already been warned about multiple errors, with clear consequences for the next one, a misspelled name is a serious matter.
- Personal life. Personal matters such as marital problems, troubled children or ailing parents do not excuse bad behavior or performance. But they are important context which you may not know. Don’t pry specifically, but it’s appropriate to ask whether something is going on that you’re not aware of. You might help the situation by making the employee aware of resources that might be available through company benefits. Or you might help relieve stress by just listening sympathetically. Unless the offense is really minor, you still should deal with the performance or behavior issue.
- Health. If a performance or behavior is related to an illness or injury, you should consult with your Human Resources department in dealing with it.
- Substance abuse. Again, consult HR if you suspect abuse of alcohol or illegal drugs. Your response will be influenced by such issues as previous incidents (which you may not be aware of) and willingness to seek treatment.
Is formal discipline needed?
If the situation merits formal discipline, consult with HR and the publisher. Your company may have a formal procedure you need to follow. And you need to act consistently with how other departments have handled similar cases (or understand the precedents and have good reasons if you choose not to follow them).
I’ll deal separately with ethical problems, which are essentially a matter of journalistic behavior. You also may have to deal with issues that have nothing to do with journalism and can arise in any workplace: temper, sexual harassment, substance abuse, etc.
If behavior is the problem, you want to keep performance out of the discussion as much as possible (and the staff member, particularly if he is a good performer, may try to bring performance into the discussion). Keep your focus on the behavior: If a staff member lost his temper and threw a chair in the newsroom, that’s unacceptable behavior, even if he lost his temper defending an important matter of journalism quality or ethics. If a staff member has assaulted another staff member or touched a colleague inappropriately, performance is irrelevant to the discussion of behavior.
Discussion of behavior issues should focus on the conduct, your expectations and consequences if the conduct is repeated.
Discussions of weak performance can go lots of different directions. If the staff member acknowledges the weakness, you don’t need to beat her up about it. You make your expectations clear and discuss solutions and consequences for future problems.
If the staff member doesn’t understand the problem (I mean truly doesn’t understand, rather than fake misunderstanding as a form of passive resistance), you need to make your expectations clear, explain (with specific examples) how the employee is failing to meet the expectations and learn whether any training is needed to meet them.
If the staff member is fighting your expectations or denying the problem, you need to be firm and clear that this is what the job is and that he must meet the expectations if he’s going to do the job.
It’s best to set specific, measurable standards that relate to the specific performance issue. For instance, if a reporter is making too many factual errors, you might spell out the consequences for mistakes and state how many errors will be tolerated in a particular time period.
You also might require some training or corrective action (use of an accuracy checklist, for instance).
I’m not a fan of byline counts, but if a person’s performance problem is production (or a type of production), you can quantify overall production expectations (two stories a day, for instance) or types of production (maybe a specified number of videos a week or live coverage of at least one event a week).
Similarly, I think follower counts or Klout scores are not the best ways to measure social media performance. But if someone has been resisting use of Twitter, you could set a goal of followers (perhaps specifying how many have to be from the community, if you’re willing to monitor that specifically) or of improving a Klout score. Make clear that what you’re seeking is better engagement on Twitter, and that the followers and Klout score are just a reflection of improved engagement.
A positive goal, such as growing Twitter followers or a Klout score, can be used in an informal discussion with a staff member. But don’t spell out negative consequences, such as for errors, without working closely with HR.
However you measure progress, be wary of efforts to game the system. For instance, you don’t want a byline count to prompt a reporter to inflate briefs into bylined stories rather than seeking out more good stories to report. If the performance problem is accuracy and you specify consequences for future errors, you need to be specific as well about the consequences for failure to report an error called to the reporter’s attention by the public.
Ethical issues are really performance-related behavior issues, so your response has elements of both issues.
Some ethics issues seem black-and-white: Don’t plagiarize and don’t fabricate. But things are seldom that simple. You may think of plagiarism as a firing offense, plain and simple. But the case you are presented might be someone who lifted material from a press release without attribution and thought that was acceptable. That may be more a situation for education and discipline. (Journalists who have taken our plagiarism quiz are most likely to misunderstand attribution standards for press releases.)
Many other ethical issues don’t even seem black and white. If someone seems to be using unnamed sources too much, it’s not likely to reach the stage where you’d consider formal discipline, but you should have a discussion about situations when a reporter should grant confidentiality and explain why you think the reporter needs a higher threshold.
Maybe you and a reporter haven’t discussed whether that reporter should state opinions in social media and you are surprised by an opinionated tweet about a topic he covers. Again, that may not call for discipline, but an overdue conversation about opinions (which aren’t necessarily bad journalism; maybe this reporter might be better suited to be a columnist, blogger or editorial writer).
As with performance and behavior issues, it’s not important that you agree about whether the conduct was wrong (though that would be nice), but it is essential to make clear your expectations.
The difficult conversation
Except in a small newsroom where you are the only editor, it’s a good idea to have another editor, probably the staff member’s immediate editor, join the conversation.
Get to the point. Maintain eye contact. Don’t raise your voice. Your office is a good place to have this conversation. But if that’s too visible, you could meet in a conference room somewhere.
The conversation itself does not have to be long. Outline the problem to the staff member and say how you know what happened (unless you have been told in confidence). If you are certain of the facts (for instance, if you witnessed the throwing of the chair), you don’t need to give the employee a chance to explain, confirm or dispute. In other instances, you might pause after outlining the offense to see if the staffer contests the facts. Listen to facts he presents. If they don’t match the facts you have, you might need to investigate further. If the response is excuses, not facts, don’t listen long to excuses.
Explain your expectations and why the performance or behavior doesn’t meet them.
Be clear about consequences
If the conversation is serious enough to deal with consequences for repeating the unacceptable performance or behavior, be sure to discuss in advance with HR how to address this. Don’t shoot from the hip with threats.
After a difficult conversation with an employee, follow up in writing, summarizing what you discussed. A written follow-up reinforces, clarifies and documents the discussion.
You also need to follow up later. If a formal disciplinary action set a probationary period, be sure to meet a couple days ahead of the end of the period. Don’t let the end slip past without a discussion of how it’s gone. If you don’t have a probationary period, at least follow up informally, giving your view of how the employee is doing and asking how it’s going for her.
Another important follow-up matter if the point of the difficult conversation is not typical of the staffer’s performance: Sometime soon, if she deserves it, be sure to deliver some specific praise for her work. You want to continue to value and reward this staff member’s contributions.
Want to contribute a guest post?
If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities.
I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.
John E. McIntyre’s The cowardice of the manager (a response to this post)
Jill Geisler’s What Great Bosses Know about Tough Conversations
Edward Miller’s Planning Difficult Conversations
Edward Miller’s Tips for Difficult Conversations
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is uncertain). The pace of these posts has slowed, but I’ll still try to post something weekly. What other topics should I cover?
- Developing new leaders