How to Manage Difficult Employees

If you have managed employees then you have likely faced the dilemma of the difficult employee.  This employee usually adds value when they feel like it. When they aren’t late, missing work, or failing to pay attention to detail they can be quite helpful.  Their problems however are impacting the workforce. You don’t want to terminate the employee, but you can’t deal with any more performance issues.

Many managers try to “punish” an employee in an effort to address the problems without termination.  They may reduce the employee’s hours or suspend the employee from work for a period of time.

Sure, this strategy may solve one problem.  It lets the rest of the workforce know that the behavior will not be tolerated and at the same time, you don’t have to lose your employee.  Typically though, this action only drags the problem on for longer. You can increase performance problems and run into legal problems as well.

When the difficult employee returns to work, rarely is their performance magically improved.  Usually, the employee is only more unmotivated, resentful, and possibly even vengeful. An employee returning from being “disciplined” is likely to bad mouth you to other co-workers, give poor service to customers, steal small bits of merchandise, or possibly even use their social media page to bash their employer publicly.

Regarding legal problems, reducing hours does not get around the legal risks encountered through terminating an employee.  All employment actions must be free from discrimination. Reducing an employee’s hours needs to be documented to the same degree as terminating the employee.  Both are employment actions.

Instead, follow the tips below to coach and document an employee on their performance in five minutes.  If the problems continue to be severe, then after coaching and documentation, you will be protected should you need to terminate.  

First, take some one on one time with the employee to get their point of view.  Ask them what is going on with them and is their any help they need professionally or personally?  Sometimes this step alone let’s an employee know you care and can increase their motivation to work hard.  

If things don’t improve, then remind the employee of your expectations.  Use specific examples of where you saw their performance not meet expectations.  Last, let the employee know how this impacts the business and the employee.

How to Effectively Communicate Expectations

Here is an example of how to effectively communicate expectations, use specific examples, and describe the impact in five minutes.  

1. Expectations — I expect all team members to be on time for work.  I understand that on occasion life happens and I am happy to work with you from time to time.  You have been late 6 times in a month. That is more than I can work with.

2. Specific example — On February 8th, 10th, 11th, 15th, 19th, 20th you were late by more than 15 minutes.  On two of these occasions you were 30 minutes late.

3. Impact  — We are a team environment.  When you are late, other team members have to pick up your slack and they lose respect for you.  What’s more, the team wonders why they make the effort to get here on time when you are showing up late.  If you continue to be late to work, then you may not be a fit for this position.

If after coaching the performance issues continue to be severe, document the expectations, specific performance examples, and impact if it continues in writing and share with the employee.  Should the employee’s performance still does not improve, then it may be clear that it is time to part ways.

Part of the management process is the routine habit of coaching your employees. All employees have their strengths and weaknesses.  Get into the practice of carving out time to talk to your employees about what is going well and what is not. Take five minutes to track each day in a log positives and negatives.  Homebase makes this easy with it’s own tool for keeping manager’s notes. Those notes can serve as your outline for a quick and routine one one coaching session with your employees. Over time, you will find improvement in performance and morale.  You will also avoid the backlash of reducing an employee’s hours or “suspending” an employee.

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