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HR Magazine, February 2001: High-Maintenance Employees

HR Magazine, February 2001Vol. 46, No. 2

When employees get out of hand, HR needs to apply 'tough love' - and help them solve their own problems.

Are employees complaining more than ever? And is there anything you can do about it? Yes and yes, say HR professionals.

“Employees drive the train today,” says Coy Gayle, PHR, vice president of HR for MEVATEC Corp. in Huntsville, Ala., an engineering services firm. With 25 years of HR experience, Gayle has seen a marked shift in the nature of work and the expectations of employees.

“Employees are much more educated now than they have ever been,” he says. “They are much more knowledgeable of the work they do, and we empower them to accomplish their work with little or no supervision.”

And, employees have access to a lot more information. In today’s economy, that means “If they don’t like what’s going on in your organization, they can very quickly change and go to another employer,” says Gayle.

In short, “high-maintenance” employees—those who are more demanding, more independent and more likely to challenge the status quo—are becoming more the norm than the exception. They refuse to be dismissed, and they certainly will not be ignored.

But busy HR professionals may not have the time to hold the hands of all their high-maintenance employees. Prioritization seems to be the answer, according to Jim Redeker, chairperson of the Employment Services Practice Group of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen LLP in Philadelphia.

Based on his experiences, Redeker divides high-maintenance employees into two categories.

One type of employee is the “player”—someone who wants primarily to manipulate your systems. These employees are “smart, have figured out every system you have and have decided that their greatest joy in life is to ‘play’ those systems. These are the people who drain your supervisors of morale and time,” says Redeker.

The other category, Redeker says, “are the highly talented persons who you really don’t want to lose. So, you spend an inordinate amount of your time keeping them on the right path.”

Redeker says different strategies are in order when dealing with these different types. “What I tell clients is that they should not be intimidated by the player, and they should not get sucked into playing the game.” The highly talented person is easier to deal with, he says, “because, typically, the high-maintenance, talented employees are not going to give you the same kinds of problems as the player.”

Anne Wagner, vice president of HR at LEESON Electric Corp. in Grafton, Wis., agrees. “The otherwise good employees who just have an inordinate amount of questions, problems or need handholding really aren’t the problem,” she says. “We don’t mind helping those folks. If they take a bit more time from us, they’re worth it. The high-maintenance employees that I do mind are those that are like a low-grade fever—a constant irritant always causing a problem or dissension but not so big that you’d terminate them for any one incident.”

In either case, says Richard Hagberg, Ph.D., an industrial psychologist and CEO of Hagberg Consulting Group in Foster City, Calif., a high-maintenance individual can do a great deal of damage to the team. Hagberg has studied more than 4,000 executives and has compiled extensive quantitative data on leadership traits and how these traits affect the behavior and attitudes of employees. It is surprising, he says, “how commonly teams are derailed by a single disruptive individual.”

The Role of HR

Employees may be “high maintenance” for a variety of reasons, says Hagberg. Some employees are chronically dissatisfied with their jobs, or are extremely dependent. Some have problems with authority figures, so they have difficulty with their bosses. Some have rebellious tendencies and believe management is always out to get them. And, some just seem to create problems everywhere they go, he says.

HR professionals can play an integral role in helping to teach employees the social skills they need to function effectively, says Hagberg. Unfortunately, in the process of “helping,” HR professionals can become part of the problem.

“If anything is our flaw, it’s our kindness,” says Beverly Kaye, co-author of Love ’Em or Lose ’Em: Getting Good People to Stay (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 1999). “Maybe that’s our undoing and that’s what keeps those high-maintenance people coming back to us.” There comes a time, though, she says, when HR professionals have to learn how to give more tough love. “We have to find ways of helping those employees solve their problems themselves.”

Hagberg agrees. HR professionals, he says, are frequently drawn to the profession “because they’re helpers, and sometimes they have ‘rescuer’ tendencies. But, he warns, “in their desire to be helpful and supportive, they can sometimes create dependency.”

Cutting the Apron Strings

Paul Costa, HR director of Evolve Software Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., admits that HR professionals may contribute to problems with high-maintenance employees—or even create them—“because they enjoy the feeling of being needed.”

At Evolve, Costa emphasizes personal responsibility for both employees and their managers. “The bottom line is, ‘I’m not going to let you come into my office and cry and moan and complain and whine.’” This isn’t just an issue of time management, he says. It is “truly about providing people with what they need. And, I don’t believe that hand-holding, long-term, is what they need.”

Gayle avoids creating dependent relationships at MEVATEC by engaging employees in the process of finding their own solutions. “I give them some general direction, give them the resources and the tools they need and then send them off and say, ‘Give us some input. What is it you’d like to see?’ I make them part of the process.

“Rather than work against them, we work together,” he explains. For example, Gayle had one em-ployee who wanted to hire someone as a consultant. “I looked at the job description and said, ‘This is an employee, not a consultant’ and explained the difference.” A few days later the employee was back with a new job description developed after re-searching the Department of Labor web site and other Internet re-sources. The new job description, Gayle says, “was very good.” His point is that HR may not always have the right answers and, if allowed to do so, employees may come up with a workable solution that HR did not envision.

The Role of the Manager

In addition to employee responsibility, managers need to take responsibility for dealing with high-maintenance employees, says Costa. “I’m their business partner,” he says. “I’m not the policeman.” One of his favorite questions when somebody comes in with a problem is: “What did your manager tell you when you brought it to his or her attention?” Unless the managers are the problem, they need to be there to assist in co-driving the solution, he says.

Sally Haver, a vice president with the Ayers Group, an HR and career management firm in New York, says, “HR people have to help managers look at the presenting issue and then get at the underlying issue.”

A first and critical step, she says, is getting the manager to recognize that there is a problem. “Sometimes managers feel that if they have a problem ‘on their watch’ it reflects on them, and they take it personally. Their response may be: ‘Problem? What problem?’ Management tends to bury its head in the sand a little bit when it comes to interpersonal issues,” she adds. One reason is that these issues can be very difficult to resolve.

But there is a danger in overlooking concerns raised by employees, says Patrick Higgins, senior HR consultant at SEARHC Mount Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, Alaska. “Managers who say anything that implies they are not happy with an employee because that employee is raising legitimate concerns are inviting serious problems.”

But, he adds, the manner in which those concerns are raised is critical. Here, both HR and the employee’s manager can play a role in educating employees on how to most effectively bring issues forward. “If they are raising concerns to the wrong person, they need to be told who to raise the concern to,” says Higgins. “If they are raising concerns in an unprofessional manner, they should be told what is expected.”

Costa looks to the employee and the manager to come up with solutions and to put those solutions to work. The role of HR is to help facilitate that process, he says. “I like to have people come to me with not only a problem, but with three or four possible solutions—and one solution they’d like to implement.”

Using the ‘LEAD’ Sequence

Paul Stoltz, Ph.D., author of Adversity Quotient at Work (William Morrow & Co., 2000), has conducted significant research on what helps individuals succeed in their lives and in their careers. The “Adversity Quotient” (AQ) is a measure that predicts who will be most likely to give up and who will prevail against the roadblocks and disappointments we all face.

People with low AQs, he says, often feel that each new demand they face is overwhelming. “It’s huge. It lasts forever. It’s impossible to conquer.” So, what do they do? “They go to the ones who will listen—their managers or the HR folks—and they say, ‘Hey, this isn’t fair! Can you believe what we’re dealing with?’ Then, the HR folks try to help them in some way, or give them some training or coaching.”

But, he says, efforts to give pep talks or motivate employees to think more positively are like “painting a car red to make it go faster; it’s superficial and ineffective.” Instead, Stoltz recommends a process he calls the “LEAD sequence,” drawn from research originally done at the University of Pennsylvania, to help individuals break out of this victim mentality. Here’s how it works:

  • Listen to the response. “By that,” he says, “we mean, be keenly aware of what’s triggering these moments. Listen for the core.”
  • Establish accountability. “What we’re looking for is a way to help them take even the smallest accountability. Given the whole situation of this big, horrible mess, ask, ‘What’s one small part that you’d like to improve—even a little bit?’”
  • Analyze the evidence. “This is the most powerful step,” Stoltz says. “What we want to do is unburden the employee from their terrible assumptions and help them see the facts.”
  • Do something. “My goal here is to get as comprehensive a list of potential actions as possible from this person. So, I keep asking, ‘What else can you do?’ Then I’m going to funnel that down by asking them specifically which things they want to do first and by when.”

The LEAD sequence, Stoltz says, “is whiner-proof.” When faced with a consummate whiner, he says, your response can be: “Sometimes we just need to feel bad, and other times we really want to do something about improving the situation. Which do you prefer?”

Most of the time, he says, the individual will choose to make the situation better. “Then you come back at them with, ‘If there was one small part of this situation you could change, what would it be?’” That puts you back in “the LEAD sequence.”

Cutting Your Losses

But what happens when all of your best efforts fail? What happens when you, and the employee’s manager, simply are unable to turn around a high-maintenance employee?

There comes a point where a situation needs to be addressed—head on, and sooner rather than later. “You pull them aside and tell them that if they don’t knock it off now, they’re going to be on the outside looking in real soon,” says Wagner.

In dealing with a high-maintenance employee, Haver says, “You need to look at the employee and say, basically, ‘What is my return on investment here?’ The amount of anguish you have to go through to keep this person on an even keel and keep other people from quitting because this person is so difficult to work with may simply not be worth it.”

Kaye agrees. “I think that one thing HR people don’t do enough of is tell people the truth. One thing I might do is say to myself, ‘Is this person a keeper? Is this person a star performer? Is this person somebody whose skills are not easy to replace?’” If the answer to these questions is yes, she says, then the investment of time necessary to deal with this person’s issues may be justified. If not, it may be time to terminate the relationship.

“A lot of times companies are held ransom by people who have good technical skills that you know are going to be hard to find,” Hagberg explains. But, he counsels, “You have to look at the disruptive effect of that individual on the organization.”

“We counsel our clients to not play the game,” Redeker says. “When you sense that you have a ‘player,’ then you have to decide what level of risk you want to take. You take the action you need to take for your business and then defend it as best you can. The important thing is, you’ve got to run your business. You can’t be held hostage by either the game player or the talented malcontent.”

Actions speak louder than words, professionals agree. One of the best ways to send a signal to the workforce that high-maintenance behaviors will not be tolerated is to take swift and direct action to eliminate the bad behaviors or even eliminate the employees who are exhibiting the bad behaviors.

“If the individual ends up being terminated, most certainly the company can’t tell the rest of the organization why that person was terminated,” Costa says. “But word has a way of leaking and spreading.” When organizations have clear expectations—both verbally and through their actions—then the workforce quickly differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, he says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book : Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).


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