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No. 154 – How do I manage my poorly performing employee, who has ADHD?

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8 May 2024

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: a delicate situation with a staff member, a wish for compensation and hostile coworkers.

I own a small business and recently hired a new staff member. She painted a rosy picture of her achievements, sought a high salary and seemed very confident. However, I soon realised she is quite disorganised, causes me sleepless nights with her risky client behaviour and relies on others to effectively do her work. She is resistant to being supervised. When I raise issues about her performance, she gets upset and says, “Her mind is wired differently.” She has ADHD and other conditions for which she takes medication. When she does the basic part of her job, she requires excessive praise. Her management feels excessive, and I believe everyone indulges her. She thinks she is working hard, but it doesn’t translate to a full billable day. Help!

This is a very tricky situation you are going to need to navigate cautiously. If you don’t already have internal HR support, I think you will need to get some external advice to help guide you through each step of the process. I have had to edit your letter for length but from the long list of performance issues you sent me, it seems without a significant change in her approach, you are unlikely to see her work out in the role. However, there are many steps you have to go through before coming to that decision.

It sounds like your feedback meetings have not gone well in the past, and it is imperative she understands exactly where you expect to see improvement and what that improvement needs to look like. Be as specific as you can be. Given she has become upset during these meetings in the past, be sure to let her know she can bring along a support person next time if needed. When you seek external advice, you should mention she has disclosed she has ADHD since it does mean you need to be particularly mindful of not wanting to take action about her performance because she has told you she has ADHD – that would be a breach of the law. It is a complex issue but one you will be able to navigate with expert advice, patience and compassion.

I left my last job almost a year ago, after I had a meeting with the owner about some concerns I had about the business. The owner’s response was to sack me, effective immediately. I tried explaining that there’s a process that needs to be followed when letting someone go, to which they said because I was in a senior role I didn’t get those benefits. So, I left and was paid out my four weeks’ notice, plus holidays. I’ve since found a better position, but I’m wondering if I did the wrong thing by not pursuing compensation from them, as their behaviour caused me stress and grief. Do you think it’s too late? And if not, is there some cost-effective way to do it?

I think you should really think about why you might want to go back over old ground now. You are in a new job that sounds like it is better than the one you had. It sounds like you didn’t lose anything financially. You have built a good reputation at your new job and if you suddenly sue your former employer, that might only raise questions in their eyes. And in terms of legal costs, there is a high income threshold to access Fair Work. If you earned more than $167,500 last year you will need to engage your own lawyers, which will become expensive. You are within your rights to pursue it, but that doesn’t always mean it is the best way to go.

I work in a government agency where staff with longer service have certain tasks reserved for them, and refuse to upskill others. When feedback is given, they become hostile. I and other members of the team have brought the attitude problem and workload differences up with leadership, but they won’t affect any change. What can I do?

If you have raised this with your existing leaders and nothing is being done, you may need to escalate your concerns. You can do this by going to a more senior leader in the agency, raising a whistleblower complaint, or going to HR. You and your colleagues are best to find out the recommended process for any code of conduct issues and pursue your concerns, together, that way.

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