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Effective Strategies for Working with Problem Employees

SHRM has partnered with Security Management Magazine to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Problem employees. Difficult staffers. Workers who need behavior modification and attitude adjustments. However they're described, problem employees are the dread of every manager, and they require special skill and attention. As the experts attest, there's no silver bullet solution, no ready-to-use spiel or psychological exercise that can suddenly make a difficult employee easy to work with.

"When you are talking about dealing with well-entrenched personal qualities, you need to be a bit of a black belt in your personal skills and in your management," says Marie G. McIntyre, a workplace issues expert who writes a weekly syndicated career advice column, "Your Office Coach." She is also the author of The Management Team Handbook (Jossey-Bass, 1998) and Secrets to Winning at Office Politics (St. Martin's Griffin, 2005).

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When it comes to advice for working with problem employees, experts offer numerous approaches covering various parts of the process. The first piece of guidance is simple–don't let staffers become problem employees in the first place. While that may sound like short and snappy advice, following it entails sustained effort on the manager's part. And the effort starts during the hiring process, said Michael Timmes, a senior human resource specialist at Kingwood, Texas-based Insperity, a national human resources service provider. 

Timmes, who has nearly 30 years of experience in HR, sees a clear trend in the field. There are more resources available in the "emotional intelligence space" that emphasize the importance of relationship management skills, self-awareness and social awareness, he said. As a result, more managers are deploying their knowledge of these concepts in the employee selection process. A candidate's qualifications are still important, but managers are also looking beyond the résumé. 

"They're hiring for the right attitude as much as for the right skill set," Timmes said. Making an effort to ensure from the start that new employees have the right attitude for the position reduces the chances that they will become problem employees later, he added.

Veteran security manager Sam Curry, who is now chief technology and security officer for Burlington, Mass-based software company Arbor Networks, agreed with this emphasis on positive attitude and high emotional intelligence. "It's easier to correct skill deficiencies than it is to fix attitude. Attitudinal issues will soak up the most time and will most often end in heartbreak," Curry said. "You can teach someone a new skill, but you can't give them empathy, self-awareness, altruism or an amenable personality."

Learning Levels

​But hiring is only the beginning to ensure that a staffer stays well-adjusted and engaged, Timmes said. During the onboarding process, a manager should initiate conversations with the new employee about expectations, responsibilities and other topics that will make the employee's role clear. Encourage the employee to ask questions to help them understand their duties. 

Once onboarding is finished, these conversations should continue. They do not need to be time-consuming; a 10-minute informal chat every few weeks or so should suffice, Timmes explained. These short conversations serve several functions. For one, they allow the manager to emphasize how the employee's role is tied to the success of the organization, which goes a long way toward maintaining the employee's sense of mission. 

They also allow each party to provide feedback. If the manager periodically provides feedback on the employee's performance, "it eliminates some surprises when it comes time for the annual performance review," Timmes said. If signs of difficult behavior in the workplace are starting to crop up, they can be discussed before they have time to solidify. And employees can let the manager know how they feel about their role, "so there's a finger on the pulse there," he added. 

But these periodic conversations also give managers an opportunity to gauge an employee's alignment with the organization. Through active listening, the manager can learn about employees on a deeper level: their sense of mission, values, life goals and involvement in the community. In these of discussions, the manager is sending the message that: "I care about you as an individual and as a team member," Timmes said. From the employee's perspective, this helps build trust. "People understand that there is someone in leadership who cares about them," he explained.

When the manager gains this deeper knowledge, he or she can better understand how the values of the employee align with the company's mission, and the ways in which the worker feels most connected with the organization. When trust, connection and value alignment are established, both parties benefit. The employee is more likely to be engaged and professionally fulfilled, and a lot less likely to become a difficult or problem employee, Timmes explained.

Psychic Management

Of course, some managers don't have the opportunity to work with employees from Day One. A new manager may take over a department staffed with longstanding workers—a few of whom could be considered problem employees. Similarly, a merger or acquisition could result in new staff in the department that the manager didn't hire. Whatever the reason, some managers do find themselves working with difficult employees on a regular basis.

In these cases, McIntyre advised, managers should be honest enough with themselves to ask the following question—are my behaviors or actions making this problem worse?

In more than 20 years of career coaching, McIntyre has seen a few recurring ways in which managers do make the problem worse. Some managers, she said, see problems with a staffer's behavior or attitude, get frustrated, but never take concrete actions to address it and the problem becomes worse. In other cases, she has seen managers pay a tremendous amount of special attention to problem employees, which she says merely rewards the bad behavior. That, too, can make things worse. 

Another common error, McIntyre said, is when a manager assumes that the employee knows there is a problem. In this case, a manager can become increasingly frustrated, because she feels that the staffer is knowingly being difficult. Finally, the man­ager will approach the employee in a very annoyed and frustrated manner—an approach that is neither professional nor managerially sound.

Managers should strive for fairness in their approach. "It's important to not leap to conclusions early and to be as open to input," Curry said. "The first thing to do is make sure that there's no witch hunt, that facts truly are facts—and they can change, so be careful here—and to have an approach similar to a jurist in a court case."

Maintaining professional respect is also key, said Maxine Attong, an organizational development expert and author of Lead Your Team to Win: Achieve Optimal Performance by Providing a Safe Space for Employees (River Grove Books, 2014). Even though the worker may be considered a problem employee, a manager-staffer meeting should never have the tone of a parent-child scolding, but rather an adult-to-adult conversation between two intelligent professionals. The manager should take a positive and optimistic stance and focus on future improvement, Attong said. "Declare this to the employee, for example, 'My intention is for us to find a way forward on your job,'" she said.

It is also helpful for the manager to strive for feedback from the employee, she added. If certain procedures or policies were breached, a manager should state these, make sure the employee understands and solicit ideas from the worker on how to move forward.

Documentation is an important part of the process, experts said. This is especially true if a disgruntled employee seeks legal action. 

"Any action that can be interpreted as discriminatory or harassment can lead to a civil action by employees. Hence the reason for proper documentation," Attong said. "The manager must build a consistent trail that shows that this employee was not singled out." 

Attong suggested that when a manager documents the meeting, that he ask the employee to agree with the documentation.

Re-Engagement on the Job

In some cases, an employee's problem­atic behavior and attitude indicates that the worker is not engaged with the job, Timmes said. 

A manager can discuss this possibility with the employee. And, sometimes, an honest and supportive conversation will reveal that the staffer is simply not in the right job. That's an unpleasant thought for some.

"Sometimes people will be denial," Timmes said. "They have the attitude of, 'I've been here for so long, I just don't know where I would go or what I would do.'" Still, if that is the situation, it is best that it is acknowledged, experts said, and then the manager can work with the employee on an exit strategy that could benefit them both.

"The manager can help the employee frame a vision for his life. This may give him the impetus to resign and find a job that he may be more aligned to, or see the value in his current position as a stepping stone to where he wants to be," Attong said. 

But in many cases, a lack of engagement is not because the job and the employee are a poor match. The staffer may still be a good fit for the profession. But the employee may no longer see why his or her work is crucial to the organization, how it helps the company fulfill its mission, and how that mission is important to the larger world. 

This can happen for a few reasons: Day-to-day repetition can make work seem rote; overworked staffers are just trying to keep their heads above water; and concepts like mission and purpose are given lip service, but never explicitly expressed or explored. 

But a manager can take the initiative and, through exploratory discussion, help the employee regain perspective on their contributions and value, to the organization and beyond, Timmes said. 

 "Hopefully, that can reignite them, and they will recommit to their mission," he said. 

Behavioral Specifics

There are certain types of difficult behaviors and attitudes that occur in many workplaces. Below are descriptions of problem employee archetypes, based on conversations with workplace issue experts. Each sketch is followed by advice on how managers should deal with each one.

Negative Nancy. Naysays projects and assignments. Shoots down the new ideas of others. Often predicts doom. Frequently makes comments such as, "We tried that before, and it never works," "This project is turning into a complete disaster" or "There's just no way we can meet a deadline like that." 

Sometimes, employees use negativity to convey intelligence, Curry explained. Critics often seem like authorities, and so naysaying a project can be a way for an employee to highlight their expertise and professional experience. The manager, then, should strive to redirect that expertise in a more positive direction. 

If the pattern of negativity becomes disruptive, the manager should use a factual approach, noting behavior patterns such as the employee's tendency to criticize when new ideas are proposed at staff meetings. The manager can also explain how a past failure may be the result of a timing issue, not problems inherent to the idea. Finally, the manager can encourage the employee to focus on making the project better, not obliterating it. 

"Ask this employee what success looks like to him. Have him paint the picture for success and ask what he would do differently," Attong said. 

Egotistical Eddie. Acts condescendingly. Dominates discussion at staff meetings. Resents being asked to do mundane but necessary tasks. His immense self-regard alienates co-workers. 

While prima donna behavior can be frustrating for other staffers to deal with, the manager should be careful not to focus on personal characteristics when discussing the problem with the employee. "To say something like: 'You apparently think you're all that, and a bag of chips, and this is very annoying to people,' that's not a conversation you want to have," McIntyre said. 

Instead, focus on how specific actions may hurt staff productivity. For example, a manager might discuss how the employee's domination of staff meeting discussions hinders others from contributing ideas—and how that diminishes output from the team.

However, some prima donnas possess top-flight skills that are a tremendous asset to teams, Curry said. Here the manager should adopt a dual strategy: communicate to the employee that her work is highly valued, but also that it does not entitle her to behave in a manner that hinders other team members. 

In addition, Attong recommended that the manager consider giving the employee additional projects appropriate to their skill level. "Since this is in her self-interest, she will be happy to do other work to strengthen her résumé," she said. If the employee still feels underutilized and wants to leave the organization, a strengthened résumé could help her do so, and leaving may be in the best interests of the staffer and the organization. 

Crisis Charlie. Life problems frequently interrupt his work life. He has long personal phone conversations while at work, mood swings and shares too much about relationship issues. Life events, like weddings and divorces, can affect performance for weeks.

Tread carefully here, with sensitivity, experts said. 

"Crises can come in blocks, especially with children and elderly parents, divorces, et cetera," Curry said. "How you help someone through a cluster of crises is important. It is not just the right thing to do—it can create incredible loyalty with employees."

It's also possible that mood swings and oversharing may reflect medical issues, which is all the more reason for a manager to be careful. Considerate and candid conversation is appropriate, but discussions should be nonthreatening when it comes to employment issues. "Make sure to avoid harassment and miscommunication, and involve HR, and keep them apprised," Curry added. 

In one-on-one conversations with the employee, the manager can start to gauge the problem, and also explain how a staffer's demeanor can affect others on a team. "This employee may be unaware of the impact of his behavior, since this may be a reflection of deeper psychological problems that the employee is facing," Attong said. A 360-degree performance review can be helpful in providing feedback from peers, she added. 

In addition, the one-on-one conversations affords an opportunity for the manager to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges an employee faces outside of the workplace that may affect his performance at work, Timmes said. It may also be an opportunity for the manager to highlight the organization's employee assistance program or other resources the company may have to help, he added.

Challenging Cathy. Thrives on taking on authority. Will often challenge a manager's directives and be privately critical of decisions by upper management. Derisive of "company men." 

Thoughtful criticism of operations can lead to greater innovation and efficiency. Attong recommended that a manager coach this type of employee to help make her presentation and style more palatable, but still offer constructive suggestions that lead to improvements.

"I want this employee to keep challenging and will work with her, so that she can ask better questions, be less attacking, and have some compassion for others," Attong said. If the employee's manner of speaking is too cutting or derisive, "I would ask her to reframe her questions to 'what' or 'how' questions, since these help people to think and be less defensive."

Ghostly Gerty. With frequent sick days, medical appointments and lunchtime errands that last all afternoon, she is absent as often as present. Some co-workers even wonder if she is still on staff. 

In a clear-cut case, Curry said, document the absences, provide feedback to the employee if absences seem excessive, and "find out what's going on, and why." 

Attong also said that company attendance rules are important to emphasize. "Point out the policies around this, and ask the employee how he will remedy the situation," she said. "Enforce the company remedies for absenteeism." 

Mark Tarallo is a senior editor at Security Management Magazine. This article is adapted from Security Management Magazine with permission from ASIS © 2018. All rights reserved.