Stop the Enabling

Confront problem employees before the problems overrun your ability to deal with them.

By Robert T. Whipple Aug 30, 2010
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September coverConfrontation is part of being a manager. However, too often a manager’s aversion to confronting a problem employee results in accommodation of bad behaviors. In a typical scenario, the problem festers for months, even years—until escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point. By this time, the problem is horrendous and more difficult to tackle.

I once worked with an employee who suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. Finally, the situation became intolerable. When the behavior was finally addressed, the employee had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, "What took you guys so long?" Following months of treatment, he became sober and went on to be a positive contributor.

Every manager deals with situations such as this one. While they may not be as blatantly offensive as the behavior in this example, behaviors such as tardiness, taking excessive smoke breaks or bullying are destructive nonetheless.

A common example: When workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room. The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a "by the book" manager, so ignores the problem every day. When the situation gets too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a loss in morale.

Taking action requires courage that many leaders do not have. They rationalize their inaction with logic like:

  • Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
  • Perhaps I will be relocated or promoted soon, and the next person can deal with this.
  • Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
  • We have found viable workaround measures.
  • We have bigger problems. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from critical work.

Managing these dilemmas requires knowing the exact moment to intervene and doing so in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group. Once you let an employee get away with bad behavior, it becomes harder to address the next time, and so on.

For that reason, intervene when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and well-justified exceptions. It is not possible to treat everyone the same at all times, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize as appropriate and disciplined.

Are You Enabling?

You may be enabling a problem employee if:

  • You are working around a "problem."
  • Employees accuse you of "playing favorites."
  • Employees comment that they do not understand documented policies.
  • You have discussions on how to handle an out-of-control person.
  • A well-known issue is denied or downplayed.
  • You fear retaliation or sabotage will result if you enforce rules.
  • Cliques form to protect certain individuals.
  • Some individuals are victims of pranks or horseplay.

Dis-Enabling

If you recognize one or more of the above situations happening in your department, you can get back on track. In addition to dealing with the problem employee one on one, address all employees in a meeting to signal that the enabling will stop. In this meeting, review policies, ascertain understanding and solicit questions for clarification of the rules.

Ask the group how policies could be misunderstood or abused and for suggestions to close those loopholes for consistency. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.

As a leader, taking responsible action can help you regain control, credibility and respect.

You will handle problems early when they are easier to correct, and employees will no longer constantly push the boundaries of acceptable business behavior.

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The author is chief executive officer of Leadergrow Inc., a Rochester, N.Y.-based leadership consultancy. He is author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (Productivity Publications, 2003) and can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com.

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