Business owners often push for productivity, and in a company where there are 10 or 1000 people doing the same task over and over again, it’s easy to set a goal and measure whether it’s being achieved by each individual, a department or a production line. But what can you do in a smaller office-based environment where you have one to several employees that wear multiple hats that include data entry, updating spreadsheets, analyzing, thinking critically and making recommendations and/or decisions?

Throughout my career, from my first job that included mostly data entry to my more managerial and thinking roles, I’ve always been one who gets things done quickly (and accurately). Because of my own abilities, which in large part I drove myself to because of the expectations and coaching of those I worked for, I’ve set high expectations for all who’ve worked for me—ask any of them. Many were great at their jobs—quick and accurate on the task side and intelligent and insightful on the critical thinking aspects of their jobs.

Unfortunately, I’ve also had a few employees that weren’t so productive. What made me think so? Essentially, I said to myself, “how long would it take me to do that job?” And to the extent that my quickness was/is an aberration, I’d give the person the benefit of the doubt by taking some discount for my quickness. And to be fairer, if not also accurate, I would think about other employees (current or past) that did similar tasks with similar complexities and available tools, and ask myself, how long did/would this have taken that person.

In a recent situation, a client had a full-time controller who had been with the company in that role for several years. As their outsourced and part-time CFO, I didn’t see what this controller did all day each day, but I was convinced that it shouldn’t take him as long as it seemed to take him to do his job. A few months ago, when he resigned without notice, I was asked to step in to his role until we found and started a replacement. Despite not knowing all the systems, where he got all the information to do commissions and journal entries and such, I completed his job for that month in just 20 hours.

How could this be I asked myself? There are two possible answers. Let me describe them both and then I’ll tell you which one applied here. First, the employee genuinely works hard but just can’t get very much completed. Second, the employee’s work ethic and, in turn, productivity, expands or contracts like a balloon. The more work there is to do, the more productively they work, and the more work gets done. The less work there it to do, the slower they do it so that they appear busy but they really could handle a lot more.

In the situation described above, the employee was genuinely working hard but just wasn’t productive. Interestingly, I unknowingly hired someone who fit the other description years ago. This employee joined at a time of great expansion within the company, did a great job and took on more and more work till I agreed that more staff were needed. It wasn’t till several years later when the company was shrinking due to divestiture and I was working in the same office but in a different division, that I recognized what was happening. This employee was now working slower, I believe intentionally, to make it look like he/she was busy all day yet the amount of work he/she had was not nearly as great as several years before when he/she got it all done in a normal workday.

So, what should you do if you have an employee that says they can’t get it all done and you either don’t agree or aren’t sure? If you have someone to compare their workload to, do it. If you don’t, reach out to me or someone in your network to see if they can provide a comparison.

And if you find they are not being nearly productive as they should be? Then what? There are three paths: 1) you talk to them about your expectations and, in short, ask them to step up their game; 2) you start looking for a replacement and 3) you grin and bear it. Before I conclude, a few thoughts on each.

If you ask them to step up their game and do it in the best possible way, many employees will either not be able to step up their game or will give lip service to it but not really change. While I err on the side of giving the employee an opportunity to improve to your expectations, don’t be overly optimistic and potentially blind yourself to things not actually changing.

If you start to look for a replacement, how do you prevent someone that is not any more productive than the person they replaced? Many candidates can say all the right things in an interview and then not live up to the hype. However, if you know that productivity is a concern going in, then ask them open-ended questions on the topic. Ask them for examples where their work output exceeded a predecessor or co-worker. Where possible, ask them to tell you how many of something (e.g. entering invoices into an A/P system or entering actual sales amounts into a sales report) they could do in an hour. Or conversely, how long it would take them to input 50 of this or 100 of that. And since they can talk a good game, ask their references about their productivity and quickness.

If you grin and bear it, you will likely continue to be frustrated. Moreover, they may help establish a pattern of less than stellar productivity among others in their department or across the company.

I do realize my views and perspective on this are tough, and maybe overly tough, and thus I greatly welcome your feedback. You can email me at: