Unreliable employees are an “incredibly common” challenge and can make or break an organisation, but managers are failing to address the issue, according to HR consultant Karen Gately.

“In the vast majority of businesses that we work with – in fact, I would go so far as to say every single business I’ve ever worked with – there has been at least one example of someone who is unreliable,” Gatelysays.

They might be unreliable in the sense that it’s “hit and miss” as to whether or not they’ll even show up for work; or they might show up but not be fully present from a mental perspective. Alternatively, they might be present and performing one day, but not the next.

There are also employees whose used to be reliable but were “derailed” by an incident or issue and haven’t recovered, and employees who are motivated, but their lack of ability in certain areas means they can’t necessarily be depended on, Gately says.

Failing to deal with unreliable employees doesn’t just result in lower productivity at an individual level; it can also compromise the retention of reliable employees and have a detrimental impact on an organisation’s culture, she warns.

“One of the most common reasons top performers leave a business is frustration with managers not addressing underperformance of their colleagues,” she says.

“They ultimately feel they have to carry the load; they have to do more and take on more responsibility and complexity, because others aren’t contributing.”

The conversation

The ability to shift an unreliable employee’s performance begins “way before” the problem, with the relationship the manager has built with them, Gately told HR Daily.

“The reality is, unless you’re willing to have honest conversations with people, you’re unlikely to know enough about them and their circumstances… to influence the way that they’re thinking and, ultimately, behaving,” she says.

Trust and respect are key. “People are more likely to say, ‘I don’t like my job’ or ‘you really upset me the other day’ or ‘my colleagues are annoying me’, if they actually feel safe to have those conversations,” she says.

Managers having “the conversation” should focus on the employee’s behaviour and explain its impact, Gately says.

Instead of personalising it, by saying something like, “you’re really letting the team down,” or “you’re not somebody we can rely on because you’re just never here when we need you,” managers should explore what behaviour needs to be different, and why it needs to be different, Gately says.

They should explain what’s not working and what needs to change; ask the employee what they believe is contributing to the problem, and what they can do to support them or make a difference, she says.

Whatever the outcomes of those conversations, managers must then provide ongoing feedback, guidance and direction, and hold employees accountable.

“It’s not effective to just keep empathising, and keep tolerating less than acceptable standards.”

The reasons

Sometimes, an employee’s unreliable behaviour will caused by a subconscious – or even conscious – choice, Gately says.

“I might not enjoy my job – it might simply be that I’m bored out of my brain… It’s just draining me of energy and I just don’t have the fuel to keep investing in it,” she says by way of example.

The manager in this scenario needs to talk with the employee about what will engage them, she says.

“Are there changes to the job that we can make? Are there things that can be different in the environment?”

But if the reason for unreliable behaviour is resentment or disappointment, whether in leaders or the organisation, the manager needs to identify this and consider ways they might be able to help repair the relationship.

It’s important to note that sometimes unreliability isn’t a behavioural choice, but rather a health or family issue, Gately adds.

The solution in that scenario is to understand the individual and their challenges, show compassion, and find help them to handle the load, but also support them to deliver in their role.

When there is no trust or respect

If a manager feels their relationship with an unreliable employee lacks the trust and respect required for an honest conversation, should they work on the relationship first, and in the meantime, tolerate the behaviour?

Gately says no. “They need to have the conversation. I don’t think we should ever wait or hesitate to deal with the issue – but the way they enter that scenario is incredibly important, and it’s about being authentic, it’s about taking ownership yourself for what you have or haven’t done in the past.

“It may well be, ‘Look, I understand in the past that we’ve struggled to have the kind of relationship where we can have frank and open and honest conversations, and I think there’s more we can do to build a stronger relationship between us, but I do believe I would be doing you a massive disservice in not being honest with you about where things are at, and I am really concerned about how things are going’,” she says.

Unless the employee has serious issues with their manager, most will appreciate this approach and might even start to open up.

HR can help managers with poor relationships by “getting in the trenches” and coaching them through each conversation, Gately says.

First, HR should encourage managers to consider the kind of feedback they have to give to the employee, and to think about any possible causes behind the employee’s unreliability.

HR should ask:

  • What insights do you already have?
  • What questions do you need to be asking to understand the circumstances better?
  • What pushback might you get?
  • How can you respond to that in the moment?

Finally, following up after the conversation takes place is also important – HR professionals should ask the manager how it went and what they learned, Gately says.