The term "difficult employee" is typically used to refer to
a worker who fails to conduct himself or herself in a responsible,
professional manner in the workplace. Effectively dealing with these types
of workers can be among the greatest challenges that face smaller business
owners and managers. After all, few people relish the prospect of
disciplining or criticizing other people, either in or out of the work
environment. But when problem employees emerge as an issue in the
workplace, their failings must be addressed quickly and decisively.
Otherwise, they can significantly erode company morale and efficiency.
"For many entrepreneurs, disciplining employees is very
difficult," admitted consultant Bob Turknett in
"They tend to put it off, hoping the problems resolve themselves.
But things just get worse."
Problematic employee behavior can take many different forms. Examples of
such behavior range from pervasive negativism, which can be particularly
dangerous because it so easily spreads to other employees, to abusive
language and behavior toward coworkers, clients, customers, managers, or
the small business owner. Other problems may include tardiness, shoddy and
unprofessional work, substance abuse, or unappealing personality traits,
any of which can disrupt business efficiency and hurt company teamwork and
morale. In many cases, this unwelcome behavior is symptomatic of a general
lack of motivation or focus on the part of the worker, and it can be
stopped or curtailed by taking effective intervention steps. But in other
cases, problem employees may simply be unable or unwilling to take the
steps to make themselves productive members of the company workforce. In
such instances, termination of employment may be the only alternative for
the small business owner or manager.
EFFECTIVE INTERVENTION WITH DIFFICULT EMPLOYEES
Management experts cite several steps that entrepreneurs and managers
should take when dealing with a difficult employee.
Written performance/behavior guidelines.
First, companies should maintain a written record of its worker
behavior policies and make them readily available to all employees.
These guidelines should include definitions of poor performance and
gross misconduct and detailed descriptions of performance and
termination review procedures.
Take stock of the situation.
In most business settings, workers spend long hours in close proximity
to one another, interacting with each other both professionally and
socially. Inevitably, each of these employees with exhibit certain
personality traits, some of which may annoy coworkers, managers, or the
owner of the business. But a mildly overbearing, cocky, or whiny
demeanor on the part of an employee is not in itself cause for
intervention. A business owner or manager who attempts to stamp out
every personality manifestation that he/she finds to be mildly
unpleasant will quickly alienate his/her entire workforce and hamper the
company's ability to focus its energy on business issues. But
when employee behavior or attitudes reaches a point that it begins to
have a negative impact on coworkers or the health of the business
itself, the small business owner or manager needs to intercede quickly.
Take control of the situation.
If a problem employee situation does arise, the business owner or
supervisor should schedule a meeting time to discuss their actions or
behavior. This meeting time should be scheduled so that both the
supervisor and the employee can focus on the issues at hand and speak
without being disturbed. Keep in mind that while it is unwise to hold
such a meeting when emotions are running high, issues of poor
performance also need to be addressed in a timely manner. Performance
problems, whether they take the form of insubordination, tardiness, poor
work performance, or problematic behavior with other employees, may
intensify or multiply if not address. Employees who do not perform up to
expected standards—whether knowingly or unknowingly—will
continue to do so if their unacceptable behavior is not challenged.
Take individual differences into consideration.
Small business owners often assume that workers possess the same skills
and knowledge that they do. But some meetings with
"difficult" employees reveal that their inadequate work
performance is rooted in a lack of skills rather than laziness or
indifference. In such cases, instruction and education, rather than
disciplinary measures, are the keys to making the employee a valuable
part of the workforce. In other instances, the employee may be grappling
with personal issues that have had a deleterious impact on his/her
performance. In such cases, business owners and managers can, at their
discretion, implement measures that may enable to the employee to
weather his/her difficulties and became a valuable member of the
Judge all employees the same.
Use the same criteria of performance and behavior evaluation with all
employees. "Employees want to believe that disciplinary
procedures are fair," agreed management consultant James Walsh in
When confronting a difficult employee, business owners and supervisors
are encouraged to focus on two or three specific instances when the
worker exhibited problematic behavior. Whenever possible, use measurable
and observable facts to explain the problem from your perspective.
Establish the link between the employee's unacceptable behavior
and/or performance and the overall health and direction of the company.
Try to avoid appearing adversarial.
Frame yourself as an ally who is interested in helping the problem
employee improve his or her performance. Try to convince the employee
that your meeting is in essence a collaborative effort to solve
Establish consequences and follow through.
Small business owners and managers need to make it clear to problem
employees that there are consequences for continued inappropriate or
substandard behavior. Choose these consequences with care, however.
"Tell an employee who doesn't give a hoot about climbing
the corporate ladder that he or she may lose out on a possible
promotion, and you'll get no results," noted
's Robert McGarvey. "For a consequence to matter and
actually make a difference, it needs to matter to that employee."
One way in which owners and supervisors can serve notice to a difficult
employee that they are serious about imposing discipline and correcting
behavior is to schedule a follow-up meeting
the initial meeting. Scheduling a second meeting puts the employee on
notice that his behavior and/or performance is regarded as a serious
matter that will be monitored on a regular basis.
Finally, business owners and managers need to recognize instances in
which a problem employee makes a genuine effort to correct his/her
workplace shortcomings. Without such acknowledgements, an employee is
more likely to slide back into negative patterns of performance and/or
interaction with coworkers.
Terminating Problem Employees.
Some difficult employees will resist all management efforts to convince
them to change their behavior or attitudes. In these cases, termination
of employment may be necessary. This is not a step to be taken lightly,
especially if the problem employee provides important services to the
company (as in the case of the verbally abusive employee who nonetheless
is a good computer programmer). But in some cases, it is necessary in
order to maintain—or restore—company morale and efficiency
in other areas. If behavior-related termination is warranted, small
businesses should make sure that they document the employee's
shortcomings in specific, quantifiable terms. Personnel files should
include accounts of specific incidents of poor performance; summaries of
meetings held with the employee and other company-initiated efforts to
correct behavior; and any formal warnings of probation or dismissal.
Adkerson, D. Michelle.
How to Manage Problem Employees.
M. Lee Smith Publishers, 2000.
Giacalone, Robert A., and Jerald Greenberg, eds.
Antisocial Behavior in Organizations.
Sage Publishing, 1997.
Legal Issues in Managing Difficult Employees.
Council on Education in Management, 1990.
McGarvey, Robert. "Lords of Discipline."
Supervising Difficult Employees.
American Media Publishing, 1998
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