Dealing with "Difficult" Employees

I put difficult employees into two categories. The first category of difficult employees you may have to work with are “Employees with a Problem.” Typically, employees in this category are teachable, coachable and reasonable. When working for someone who knows how to coach, delegate and lead, they will get back on track and resume being a productive and positive influence in the workplace.

The second category of difficult employees you may have to work with, and I hope you don’t, are “Problem Employees.” Unlike “Employees with a Problem,” these employees can be very difficult to teach and coach. I’m not a psychologist, but from a behaviorist point of view, Problem Employees often have a value system (a work ethic) that is counter to the values and work ethics required by their organization. They are just very good at “testing the lower limits of productivity.” They can also have an attitude that sometimes can drive you to drink. I’m not suggesting that you give up on working with Problem Employees, nor am I suggesting that you resort to drinking. What I am saying is that their behavior is often more difficult to change and quite often require you to draw on any project management skills you may possess. In other words, they can be a “project.”

So, what to do about these “difficult” employees?

There are factors that can guide you through your discussions and documentation when working with either an “Employee with a Problem” or a “Problem Employee.” The first two of these factors are:

1. Behavior. Make your discussions behaviorally specific, and focus on job-related behavior. A common mistake when discussing performance is using words and comments that are vague or can be interpreted in different ways. For example:

An employee is talking negatively about co-workers to other co-workers. It is putting a drag on morale and creates a negative atmosphere. The person is being cynical, and that automatically makes him/her an “energy vampire.” You meet with the employee and say:

Not good: “In working with other employees, you have a negative attitude and are disrespectful.” The statement is not behaviorally specific, is negative, and does not offer any facts about what the employee said or did.

Good: “When I entered the break room this morning, I heard you talking negatively about Priscilla and John. This is what I heard you say…” (State what was actually said). Don’t use the words “attitude” and “respect,” but use words that describe the behavior that you observed. This is what you will also need to document.

Be as behaviorally specific as you can, and make sure the behavior is job-related. Get help if you are in over your head and are unsure of job-relatedness. That is what a smart and competent supervisor would do.

2. Facts. Any decision you make should be an informed one. In the above example, you walked in and heard some negative comments about Priscilla and John. It may seem obvious to you that it was inappropriate. However, gather some facts before you jump into the fray.

Have you ever heard of that saying, “Ready, aim, fire?” Without facts, what typically happens is, “Ready, fire, aim.” It does not work. Substitute the words “Ready, aim, fire” with “Think, plan, act.” Don’t let your assumptions or your emotions guide your decisions. If you do, you’re likely to “shoot yourself in the foot.” Let facts guide your approach and the decisions you make to resolve the situation and correct the employee’s performance.

Good: Ask the “Employee with a Problem” or the “Problem Employee” what happened or why their performance has diminished. Get their ideas, thoughts, feelings, and point-of-view before making your decisions on resolving the situation.

Good: Get advice from your boss and your Human Resources Department. I suggest you consider this as a first step. If your boss knows (and plays well) his/her role, he/she will help and work with you to improve employee performance. The Human Resources Department is your consultant. You are its customer. Ask it to do its job and help you to come up with ways to improve employee performance.

I hope you can use these and other factors to help you think about and consider more ways to improve performance, even for “difficult” employees.

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