Got a task for Joe, but his message to you is: “it's not my job?” He doesn't outright refuse your orders, but shunts them to the back of the shelf and forgets about them.

Then, come deadline time, he gives you that blank look and says: “I just didn't have the time to get to it.”

And, how about Wilma? She never seems to get her work done — but it's not her fault. She never received the printouts she needed, she had a personal emergency, etc.

Such problem employees are double trouble. They erode your business profits and add stress to your day. How can you turn them around? Here's a game plan from top management experts:

Step 1: Take action early.

Don't let things slide. The longer you wait, the worse the situation becomes, says Ian Jacobsen, Jacobsen Consulting Group, Sunnyvale, CA. “And the more they think they can get away with, the more their performance deteriorates,” he adds.

Plus, an unhealthy attitude spreads through the work force as other employees resent pulling the load for slackers.

“Most of the time a poor-performing employee is visible to everyone at the work place, not just to the supervisor,” says Judith C. Tingley, director of Performance Improvement Pros, Phoenix, AZ. “The result is an increase in grumbling and gossip and a decline in morale. Finally, the work force loses its goal orientation.” Business profits go south.

Step 2: Document performance.

“Keep a written journal and enter every event that reflects the problem,” Tingley says. “A written record will be invaluable when you discuss the issue with the employee. Someone like Wilma, for example, often will say, ‘that's not really what happened,’ or ‘I don't remember it that way,’ or ‘that was six months ago and I've improved since then.’ To respond adequately you need written reports of what transpired.”

Step 3: Communicate the problem.

Schedule a meeting with the person to communicate the seriousness of the problem. In Joe's case, you need to get across to him that everyone is part of a team. Tell him: “Anyone who thinks ‘this task isn't part of my job description’ has no business on the team,” he says.

Your meeting should be private for two reasons. First, you want to find out what's going on. There may be private matters affecting Joe's attitude and performance. These should be discussed in private.

Second, people don't want to be humiliated in front of others. They may resist accepting blame in front of others.

“You don't want to embarrass the person,” Jacobsen says.

Step 4: Set measurable expectations.

In your meetings with Joe and Wilma, set observable and measurable outcomes.

“It's not enough to say: ‘Wilma, you've got to get better,’ ” Tingley says. “You need to say something like: ‘In your next four assigned reports, three must be done on time and the fourth no more than one day late.’ Or, ‘You must return phone calls within two hours of receipt no matter what. Either you return them or you get someone else to return them if you can't.’”

Step 5: Assign duties with specific parameters.

One meeting may not resolve the issues and, when it comes time to assign Joe his next task, you may hear: “I just don't have time to do that.” What then?

Jacobsen suggests responding with something like: “OK, what is it that you're working on? Let's see if this task fits those priorities.”

Maybe what he's doing is a higher priority. If not, you're in a position to say: “Joe, I understand your priorities and they're important. But this task is critical and I'd appreciate your dropping other things and taking care of it.”

Then, specify a date for completion. Say something like: “When should I check back to get the final work?” The two of you can then negotiate a definite time.

Come that deadline, and if Joe says: “I just didn't get around to it,” it's a good time for a follow-up meeting. Review the details of your first meeting and remind him of the specific performance parameters he was expected to achieve.

Jacobsen suggests responding with: “If you couldn't or weren't going to do it, you should have told me. Saying you won't do it now is unacceptable and I need to write you up for that. You have let us down.”

Step 6: Follow up.

As the weeks go by, maintain your written journal of events concerning your employees. You'll need this material later.

Follow through with another meeting in two months. “If things haven't changed by then, say something like: ‘Wilma, both of us will have to talk about what other possibilities exist for you within the company or not within the company,’” Tingley says.

Performance equals profits

Remember, take action early when individuals don't meet expectations. Document performance, set measurable parameters, and offer continuing guidance. Then, schedule follow-up meetings to discuss improvements in their work.

In the best of worlds, your enlightened guidance will turn around problem employees. And, at your follow-up meetings, you'll be able to say: “Congratulations! Your performance is excellent. You're meeting all your goals.”

Phillip M. Perry is a New York-based writer specializing in management and legal issues.

Identify the problem

When is a problem employee not a problem employee? When his or her behavior doesn't affect performance.

Consider the case of “Chatterbox Bob.” He talks all the time with co-workers. Must be bad, right? Maybe not.

“Some people mistakenly think the employee who talks all the time doesn't get work done,” says Bryan Hale, president of Hale Consulting Services, Carrollton, TX. “But maybe it's the only way Bob can get his work accomplished. Bob may need the social stimulation of conversation. If the work's getting done, Bob isn't a problem.”

But what if Bob is forcing his chatter on others, and those people are complaining to you? Or maybe you observe by their body language that they're not appreciating all Bob's chatter.

“Then, you need to point out that other people don't share Bob's style,” Hale says.

Meet with Bob and present evidence that his activity is affecting the mentality and workplace performance of those around him. Then, engage Bob's cooperation with words like: “How can we solve the performance problem and not get into your style?”

One possibility, of course, is that Bob is, in fact, not performing up to standards. You need to communicate your concern about his performance and note that Bob is spending a lot of time talking with others.

You might say: “We need to talk about your communications with others but, first, let's talk about your work performance and see if the conversation with other employees may be part of the cause.”

When employees fight

Ann and Sally can't seem to get along. Now, you've assigned them to a project and each wants out. What to do?

“Start by recognizing employees usually clash for reasons of style more than substance,” says Bryan Hale of Hale Consulting Services, Carrollton, TX. “Employees misunderstand each other when they don't appreciate the differences in each other's working styles.”

As a manager, you can dissipate the problem by identifying the differences in style and communicating them to the employees.

Suppose Ann and Sally have different work-pace styles. Ann is thinking: “Let's get down to business without wasteful talk.” But Sally thinks: “Let's be human beings, too.”

Once on the job, the clash continues. Ann just wants to get the job done. Sally wants to take her time and make sure each action is right. Each may work well alone, Hale says, but together their stylistic differences cause them to make moral judgments. Each mislabels the other as a bad person.

As manager, you need to ferret out the stylistic differences by observing and talking with your employees. Bring them together and explain how style differences can be misinterpreted.

“Once an individual perceives a style difference, there's very often an ‘aha’ experience,” Hale says. “The individual says, ‘I can see now I'm dealing with someone who does things differently than me. That doesn't mean the person is bad — just that there's a difference.’