Dealing with underperformance caused by a complex personal situation

Shivani Sharma

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack



"I once had an employee in my team, who was a good performer, and who was very knowledgeable about the technical systems and tools. However, he started to get sick a lot, to a point that it didn't seem feasible for a normal healthy person. Additionally, he worked from home frequently, and gave delayed responses to me and the rest of the team. I observed this pattern for a few weeks before after which there was something out of the ordinary going on and therefore made the decision to speak to him about it in a 1:1."

Actions taken

During a one-on-one, I decided to tackle the issue head-on with him. I started by discussing my concerns, but was also very caring, asking questions such as "I saw you took a lot of sick days, are you ok?". I explained what the impact to the team and the projects his absence had and what we could do to work around it. He finally decided to open up. He had a special needs child that required extra attention and had never openly shared this fact with anyone at the company. I attribute his openness with me, to my openness with him as I did not jump to conclusions as many managers sometimes do.

From that moment on, the conversation tilted towards "How can we structure your week so that you can take care of your child and be a reliable member of this team?". He needed to communicate in a better manner with me so that I could know what to expect from him. I made it clear that he should be transparent about his availability, so that I would know when he was available and could set deadlines accordingly. We also decided to keep this private and not share it with the rest of the team. I simply said that "he needed a more flexible schedule", and shared the expectations we had set.

"It has all worked out very well since then. By getting him to open up about his personal issues, things were made easier for me, for the team (due to clear expectations) and for him, as he's no longer concerned about being seen as unreliable."

Lessons learned

"Management is about empathy. Trying to understand your direct report's situation is the best to way help them grow and to keep them happy. It's your job to be proactive in detecting situations and to actively work to help them. Additionally with situations like these that could have legal implications, you can leverage human resources."

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Shivani Sharma

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack

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