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I manage a small catering staff for in-house events of our company. I have an employee who has a history of repeated bad behavior … hiding, not doing their job, etc. When confronted, her response is consistently that she wasn't trained, she "didn't know" to do or not do something (even though she's been with our company for approx. 5 years), or she outright lies about it. In the past, she's had multiple issues, has been put on Job-in-Jeopardy, straightens up her behavior just until she's out of trouble, then it starts all over again. I've recently been instructed to treat her like a new employee and retrain her myself. Today was spent performing such training. We had a event being catered and she was told to assist in the setup. The meeting organizers were in the room, preparing for the event to begin, when they saw my staff member reach into a chafing dish bare-handed, grab an item of food, then turn around and walk off while eating it.
Obviously, she needs to be reprimanded … but how do I get around the anticipated response of "I didn't know" or "I wasn't trained"?

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    "I've recently been instructed to treat her like a new employee" - by whom and why? – Joe Stevens Jul 26 at 19:50
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    Is there a reason that you need to retain this person? 5 years of willfully inadequate performance (evidenced by improving and then backsliding in tandem with formal risks) doesn't exactly suggest an employee who's suddenly going to become a good worker. – Upper_Case Jul 26 at 19:52
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    I don't think she can claim she "wasn't trained" to grab food bare-handed out of chafing dish, that the kind of training she should have gotten when she was 10 years old. – DaveG Jul 26 at 19:53
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    This person is an obvious drain on the company, and you'd be best served getting rid of her. What is the path for getting rid of a just-hired employee who misbehaves? – Ben Barden Jul 26 at 20:04
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    I don't understand the question. In any reasonable legal system, that action would instant dismissal for blatant violation of health and safety legislation or food hygiene regulations. – alephzero Jul 27 at 12:08
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How to reprimand? Formally.

At this point, based on your description, she's willing to do whatever she can do to abuse the rules and slide by, and utterly unwilling to actually produce. Fine. Don't try to fix her. Try to fire her. Figure out what is required, both in law and in company regulations, to get rid of her permanently, and walk that path. Do the counselling and documentation to get her back on Job-in-Jeopardy as quickly and efficiently as you can. She'll make meaningless excuses, but you know they're meaningless and she knows they're meaningless. Give them exactly as much credence as the regulations require and no more. Apply rebuttals (in formal documentation) as necessary.

The trick here is... it's not about a conversation with her, anymore. She's made it blindingly obvious that conversations with her are not fruitful. This is now about you, and her, having a conversation with your company regulations, until you can convince your company regulations to fire her. If she shapes up to the point that the company regulations won't fire her, then she's shaped up, and that's great... for as long as it lasts, and when she inevitably stops, drag her right back on to Job-in-Jeopardy again.

After that, the only thing that you really need to worry about is her going to some leadership figure with a sob story... and that's the sort of thing that you use the documentation for - indicating that, whatever her words are, her actions are those of someone who's unwilling to learn and unwilling to try, except exactly as far as necessary to keep herself from being fired.

Admittedly, this is easier if you get your leadership on board with it. Talk with them about the plan, and make sure that you have at least a reasonable amount of support. If your leadership is entirely unwilling to fire the low performer, then the best that you can do is formally request to not be forced to work with her, so that her poor performance doesn't get stuck to you.

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    Truly appreciate your response. I'll be saving it to reflect back on as needed. :) – Karen Jul 26 at 21:40
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From your question

Obviously, she needs to be reprimanded … but how do I get around the anticipated response of "I didn't know" or "I wasn't trained"?

But then from your comment

I'd been instructed by my supervisor and HR to document everything and retrain like a new employee due to the "I didn't know" comments during her written reprimand (for other behaviors) earlier this week.

So to me the answer is you reprimand her as you should, and then if she comes back with any juvenile responses you just document them as instructed.

From the way you have described her I doubt you can actually influence her in any way, but your management seems to understand this, so you don't need to "get around" any of her responses.

Frustrating? Yes. But unless you have the power to fire her its basically out of your hands.

  • True. I'll certainly keep documenting. Thank you for your responses! – Karen Jul 26 at 20:08
  • Yes, some things (such as this incident) are common sense and there is no excuse she can give to avoid being reprimanded. – sf02 Jul 26 at 20:08
  • Right. In the meantime, I have to address it with my team to prevent her from saying I'm singling her out. Hhhhh... – Karen Jul 26 at 20:26
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    Instead of just passively documenting every event, it might also be worth writing out the correction for each infraction (even something as simple as "It is not acceptable for staff to take food prepared for customers at a catered event"), and have her sign underneath indicating that she read the statement and understands that that behavior is not allowed. A signed document like that is the end of "I didn't know" or any similar response. Self-certifying knowledge of rules is pretty common in my industry. – Upper_Case Jul 26 at 20:49
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    This is the way to go. HR gave instructions and they must presumably have some plan. In any case, "orders is orders". The OP doing anything else (or extra) could be counterproductive to HRs plan. HR may also be privvy to medical info which the OP does not have (and is not entitled to have) that changes the context somewhat. However the OP might want to try asking HR for an outline of the plan/intention they have if they're unclear about this. – StephenG Jul 27 at 13:34
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"I didn't know" simply doesn't cut it as an excuse for poor behaviour. That is not a legal (or even moral) defense. What is the defense is if it is reasonable for someone to know something.

"I wasn't trained" is a very worrying excuse for someone that exhibits poor food safety. Depending on your jurisdiction, they should have documentation that shows they have conducted a food safety course. So, in effect, they were trained. If they do not have such documentation, or your workplace does not require it, then that should be rectified.

Employees shouldn't have to be told not to steal from their employer and customers.

In any case, I wouldn't be too concerned about whatever BS response the employee comes up with. If you are willing to accept or consider some sort of justification, that is what they will keep on doing. I would refrain from making it a game where you have to try to spell out every little rule.

For the record, theft is often considered gross misconduct, and poor food safety and putting the public at risk can be considered gross misconduct (I'm not sure). These types of offenses can instigate instant dismissal.

You need to figure out if you actually want to get rid of this employee because of their conduct, or if you want their behaviour to improve.

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