How to Manage Problem Employees

Published Categorized as Project Manager

Not all employees you manage will be successful on the job. Someone who is performing poorly may require additional training, transfer to another area where the employee may shine, or ultimately, outright dismissal. Too often, in large companies, managers unload their problem employees onto another department.

This is not being fair to your fellow managers, unless you really believe that the employee will do better in a new department where there is a better match for her skills. In some companies, I have even seen managers promote their poor performers, just to get rid of them. When asked by the manager of the other department how the prospective candidate is performing in the current job, these managers are not always completely candid in their reply.

I think the only correct policy in this situation is to be open and honest. Someday you may be looking at people in other departments as candidates for promotion into your own department, and the best way to reduce the chances of getting someone else’s rejects is to never deliver that kind of cheap shot yourself.

You can probably relate to the following story involving a first-time manager.

After he had reviewed performance appraisals of people one level below the job he was attempting to fill in his division, he selected three likely candidates. As is customary, he called the managers of these candidates and got a glowing report about one in particular, a young man.

He promoted him to his department and it ended up being a complete disaster. He had to terminate him after a short period of time because the young man wasn’t doing the job.

The first-time manager then confronted the person who had made the recommendation and asked for an explanation, never dreaming he had been deceived. The answer he got was that the employee had not been satisfactory and the manager was tired of dealing with him.

Because the previous manager was not candid, the first-time manager was tricked into doing the dirty work.

Of course, there is a great temptation to pay back such a manager in kind, but the solution is to make sure no one ever does that to you in the first place. Retaliation in an intra-company operation is not beneficial to anyone and will likely catch up with you if you pursue it.

Employees Rehabilitation

There is nothing wrong, however, in attempting to rehabilitate an unproductive employee if it’s done with the full knowledge of everyone involved.

In the situation just described, for example, had the fellow manager sat down with the first-time manager and indicated that the employee was not doing a good job but there were strong reasons for wanting him to have another chance, the first-time manager might have taken the person.

There have been many efforts like this one that have been successful. The job and the employee were not a good fit, but the employee had talent; the move to another area where that talent could be better used turned a less-than-satisfactory employee into a productive one.

Generally, however, you’ll be much more effective as a leader if you can solve your own problems in your own department and not unload them onto another department. Companies use many testing devices to put people into jobs that align with their natural skill set. These devices range from simple five-minute tests to complex three-hour psychological employees evaluations.

This is something your company either already does or should consider implementing. To emphasize my point again, you must always be conscious of the advantages of fitting employees to jobs at which they have the best chance to be successful. It is much easier to move people into jobs for which they are suited than to keep them in jobs they perform poorly, where you must then try to “educate” them. It just doesn’t work all that often.

Employees With Serious Personal Problems

Some subordinates have personal problems that hinder their attendance and performance on the job. You would be quite naive to believe that alcohol, drugs, or serious family difficulties were not going to affect your management responsibilities.

Just because you’re a manager doesn’t mean you’re equipped to handle every problem that comes your way. Many enlightened companies recognize this fact and maintain employees assistance programs. These programs are usually community supported, unless the company is large enough to justify an on-site service.

Employees assistance programs have professional resources available, offer connections with chemical dependency programs, and know the services that exist within the community. It’s foolish for you as a manager to believe that you have the capacity and the resources to solve all problems. If you try to handle a situation beyond your professional competence, you run the risk of making the situation worse.

As a manager, your responsibility is to see that the job is done within the boundaries of sound management principles. An employee’s personal problem can interfere with accomplishing that objective. Although rescuing a human being is also a legitimate objective, doing so professionally and successfully is likely beyond your personal expertise.

Also, under the eyes of the law in most states, a manager is viewed as someone who is not qualified to give personal advice. The following case occurred several years ago in a computer manufacturing company in Salt Lake City.

An assembly-line worker was late about half of the time, sometimes by as much as forty to fifty minutes. In addition, her performance was going downhill quickly. After a few weeks of this behavior, her manager spoke to her about it.

The employee apologized and said that her young son’s daycare center often opened late. She said she could not just leave her son on the doorstep and come to work. She also said she worried about her son all day because she did not know how good the center was and this was affecting her performance.

The manager replied, “Take my advice. Send your child to the daycare center where I send my children. It opens one hour earlier. If you do this, and I strongly suggest that you do, you will no longer be late and you will not have to worry about his care.” The employee heeded the advice of the manager.

Without going into the gory details, something unfortunate happened to the employee’s young son at this new center. The employee, with the assistance of legal counsel, sued the company and won. The court ruled that a manager is not qualified to give personal advice.

The manager should have referred the employee to human resources or to a qualified service such as employee assistance. Switching daycare centers was up to the employee. Of course, you must listen to your employees and be supportive of what they’re going through. Keep in mind that all your team members have challenging lives outside of work and they all have made adjustments to be at work.

You will probably need to have a candid discussion with the problem employee, but you will have to define your overall objective first. Your objective is to straighten out a work problem. You need to insist that troubled employees solve their problems, and you can direct them to the employee assistance program. You have to make it clear that if they choose not to solve the problem, they may be dismissed from employment. Take care not to do this in a cruel, uncaring way, but be sure to be firm so there is no misunderstanding.

You must be willing to listen, but not to the extent that problem employees spend a great deal of time in your office talking when they should be working. There is a fine line between being a good listener and allowing people to get away from their work for two hours while they drink coffee and pour out all their problems to you.

Sooner or later in your management career, you’ll hear every conceivable problem (along with some inconceivable problems). People are involved in the totality of life; they have problems with spouses, children, parents, lovers, coworkers, themselves, religion, diets, feelings of self-worth, and so on.

A cardinal rule in dealing with human frailties, one that will save you endless aggravation, is: Don’t pass judgment. Solve the work problem, and point employees to resources where they can solve their personal problems. In some cases, you may demand that they solve the problem because of the negative impact it is having on their work performance.

How to Manage Challenging Employees Behavior Types

As a new manager, you are likely to run into many different types of employees whom you find challenging. When faced with managing them, you must deal with their behaviors. If you let these behaviors slide, you’re giving the message that it’s okay to keep behaving that way. Also, the rest of your staff will lose trust and confidence in you. They will feel you don’t have the ability to handle difficult employees or you don’t care.

The best way to confront these challenging behaviors is to tell the employees what behaviors they need to change and why. Then you need to listen to them—they may have good reasons for behaving the way they do.

Next, get them to agree that they will change and discuss how you will monitor their behavior. Make sure to give positive feedback when they show signs of improvement. Of course, you want to come to this meeting prepared with examples of what you mean in case they doubt what you are saying or are not sure what you mean. Be positive. Make it clear that you want them to succeed. Explain how they will likely be more successful if they’re able to change some of their problem behavior. It will be much easier for you if they do. Having to put someone into a discipline procedure can be a nightmare for everyone. You may have no other choice, but it should always be your last alternative.

Here are a few of the types of employees that most new managers find particularly challenging. There are many others. Be on the outlook for them. Use the suggestions discussed here for confronting their unacceptable behavior.

The Attacker

This person always disagrees with what you say or with what other team members say. The Attacker tries to undermine you and block the efforts of the group or department from achieving its goals.

The Comic

This employee thinks her main job at work is to entertain others. Laughter in the workplace is great, but when done to excess it distracts from getting the job done.

The Deserter

This individual either mentally or physically leaves the team. The Deserter drops out and stops contributing or even performing at work.

The Limelight Seeker

This employee likes to take credit for the work done by others and goes around bragging about how crucial he is to the success of the organization.

The Moonlighter

This employee treats her regular job as secondary to some other interest. At one company with about thirty-five hundred employees, a manager had trouble figuring out one of his employees, named Joy. From August to January, Joy was the busiest employee you could imagine. She was always on the telephone or her computer or holding meetings in the conference rooms. But from February through July, Joy sat around with nothing to do. Take a wild guess what Joy was up to. She ran the company’s football pool and made it her full-time job!

The Not-My-Jobber

Employees like this do nothing unless it’s in the job description. If you asked them to drop something at HR on the way to lunch, they would refuse. After all, where does it say that is one of their responsibilities or goals?

The Bleeding Heart

These employees feel they have given their lives for the company, received nothing in return, and want everyone to know it. The bleeding heart usually has no life or no enjoyable life outside of work.

The Complainer

This type likes to moan and complain about everything. It could be the workload, the other employees, the boss, the customer, the drive to work, the day of the week, the weather, and so on. Complainers are dangerous because their negativity easily spreads to others.

There are obviously many other types of challenging employees. As a manager, you need to expect all kinds of difficult behaviors and deal with them effectively as soon as possible.

By Alex Puscasu

I am a Project Management practitioner with more than 5 years experience in hardware and software implementation projects. Also a bit of a geek and a great WordPress enthusiast. I hope you enjoy the content, and I encourage you to share your knowledge with the world.