Five Keys to Re-Engaging a Distracted Employee

May 11, 2018
How to reel your employees back in from productivity issues, before they get out of hand.

Employees taking excessive cigarette breaks, coming in late, and constantly checking their cell phones all can start out as small distractions, but could eventually morph into major issues with your staff—if you don’t catch it early.

Rich DeFrancisco, owner of Knoxville, Tenn.–based European Auto Garage, says while smaller issues like an employee taking excessive smoke breaks is one thing, a former issue of his, like employees taking 25–30 minute bathroom breaks to use their phones, is another one altogether that he had to address immediately.

You never want to get to a point where your staff member is too far gone, says Bill Greeno, consultant for the Institute for Automotive Business Excellence, and owner of Quality Automotive and Smog in Truckee, Calif. He’s seen these issues many times as a consultant, and says it can be a major damper on a shop’s productivity.

“The point is to recognize when an employee begins getting into a new bad habit. We talk a lot about catching it early,” Greeno says. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Children need to be taught, adults need to be reminded.’”

Greeno and DeFrancisco share five keys to make sure a small distraction doesn’t morph into a major issue for your shop.

1. Identify concerns early.

Greeno says it’s important for a shop owner or manager to identify a situation early, before it gets out of hand. This situation may be a small distraction that ultimately hampers production, like going into the office to grab snacks or taking an extended smoking break.

“If you allow employees to do things you don’t want them to do without saying something about it, they’re going to think that’s OK,” Greeno says.

When you’re early, it allows you to specifically identify what the issue is, and pinpoint why the employee is acting that way. Maybe the employee is distracted with personal issues, which is one reason he or she on his or her cell phone.

When DeFrancisco sees an issue blossoming in his shop, he makes sure to address it first in his staff meetings, in general and generic terms.

“We don’t call that person out in front of everybody else, but we make sure they understand that this is an expectation and what we call a minimum standard,” DeFrancisco says.

2. Specifically address the issue.

If an issue continues with your staff, it’s best to specifically discuss the issue with the employee and set a precedent, opening up that line of communication.

“You can’t just be mean to the person and hope they’re going to get it,” Greeno says. “So often we give people a disgusted look, shake our head and walk away, and we think they’re going to ‘get it.’ That’s not fair to them, you, or the others there.”

Greeno says these issues are pretty easy to quantify with falling productivity from your technicians. It’s important to identify if the issue is just general disengagement, or if the issue is something that needs to be identified and then handled privately with new procedures or policies.

“You may find that there’s something that has them rightfully distracted at work—maybe his wife is leaving him or his parent is dying, but they’d like to keep their job,” Greeno says. “If you have a very private person, you may have to ask.”

3. Find a solution.

In regard to cell phone usage in the shop, Greeno tried to get his staff to come up with a way to successfully manage cell phone usage. When nobody could agree on a definitive plan, Greeno instituted a policy where cell phones should not be used at all during shop hours, and all emergency calls should come through the office. He says this has been an effective way to bring productivity back up. Greeno enforces this by walking around the shop frequently to make sure those rules are followed, and by going over the employee handbook with new hires.

When DeFrancisco continues to see an issue, he’ll then talk to the individual privately about the distractions, and let he or she know that it needs to be changed. He says that if the employee has a health issue or needs to take a specific break at some point during the day, he’s generally open to scheduling it with the employee. An unacceptable problem, DeFrancisco says, is when an employee randomly decides to take a half hour off.

4. Be willing to follow up.

The follow-up can come in two forms: positive or negative. If the employee is doing well, encourage the good habits and give them positive reinforcement for improving.

If he or she continues to have distractions that harm the productivity of the shop, Greeno says it’s important to give reminders. He or she can have a chance to explain themselves—maybe he or she was checking wire routings on his or her phone or ordering tools, or maybe there was a  family emergency. Whatever the issue is, Greeno says to make sure that you and your employee are on the same page, and come up with a solution together.

DeFrancisco says you have to follow through if your employee continues to have issues.

“You can’t warn and then not have consequences,” DeFrancisco says. “Because then, other employees will see that person getting away with it, and they know they can get away with it, and you lose control.”

At a certain point, though, if your employee continues to have these issues, DeFrancisco says you may have to cut them loose for the good of your shop.

5. Know when enough is enough.

If you have an employee who is angry, combative, late or disengaged with his or her work, Greeno says he or she may already have one foot out the door and might not be willing to change.

For instance, if your employee is actively disrespecting you, or damaging your equipment, it’s probably time to cut that person loose. Greeno says that employees in this situation can’t do their job properly anymore, and need to be let go.

With the looming technician shortage, many shop owners may be wary of letting a staff member go. But Greeno says, cutting him or her can be much more beneficial to your shop in the long run.

“You can have one technician that’s so bad, he will reduce the productivity of the other technicians because of his presence,” Greeno says. “With that person gone, the others will be so productive that they make up for his absence.”

DeFrancisco agrees with Greeno’s stance and says he is willing to take dire measures if a staff member is unwilling to change. He says he has cut several employees who have “failed to meet minimum standards” that are set and addressed at the point of employment. His mantra is that the behavior needs to be changed after they’ve been warned, or else the employee is replaced.

“I used to be fine keeping them on if they were a good technician, but I’m not anymore,” he says. “A person who’s like that affects the other people there. If it’s bothering you, it’s usually bothering your other workers.”

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