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By Darryl Stewart

Dealing with the squeaky wheel employee

By Darryl Stewart, Head of the Herd

There is an old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.   This saying can be very true when it comes to problem employees can’t it?

In a previous blog I talked about spending most of your time and energy on your best employees.  I said that great managers fought the natural urge to focus on their problem employees and instead focus on their best and on those that they felt had the potential to join their best.

In my interviews with front line managers across Canada, I consistently hear that problem employees are not being dealt with and how demotivating this situation is for them.  In terms of negative issues, this is one of the big ones.

What then are you supposed to do?  On one hand I am saying “don’t worry about the problem employees too much” on the other I am saying “this is a big problem that needs to be dealt with.”  I never said this would be easy!

At the core of dealing with problem employees are two things: fortitude and empathy.


Nobody wants to deal with performance issues.  It is much easier to just let it go for another day.  It takes fortitude to go against the grain and do something that is not easy and that the employee in question would rather you just let go.


Problem employees are people too. Just like your stars.  The only hope you have of changing the situation is to stay caring and interested in the other person’s success.  As always, the whole team is watching and expecting you to be fair.

Start with setting expectations.  With your star employees setting expectations is more about setting goals together and can and should take quite a bit of time.   With problem employees, the expectations are usually simple and hard for even the toughest nut to disagree with: show up to work on time,  be respectful of fellow staff, complete all the duties required on the shift, answer the phone within 2 rings.  These are all simple things.  Problem employees are, by definition, having trouble with simple things.

Hold the person accountable for the expectations.  Once an expectation is set, the fortitude and empathy really come into play.  Each time the expectation is not met, have a private discussion with the person; ask why the expectation was not met.  Listen with caring and empathy; try to understand why, in their mind, this happened.  You do not need to agree with their “why” to be empathetic.

These short discussions are the heart of the solution.  Maybe you can coach the person to a better way of thinking and acting, maybe you truly do understand why and you can change the expectation together, maybe you realize the situation is hopeless and you need to escalate this. Keeping these sessions short and focused on the expectations is the key to limiting the time spent with your problem employees.

gears getting greaseGreat managers show up to these sessions with ideas on how to make things better. As you get to know the person, you need to try different approaches.  The goal is to get to the heart of the matter, not get drawn into pointless discussion about a bunch of issues not central to the performance problem the person is having.  Make it clear that expectations are not being met and also that you are prepared to try and help in many ways to get them to a better place.

The research on employee engagement is clear.  The number one most important factor, the basecamp of employee engagement, is that people understand what is expected of them at work.  Very closely related to this is that people believe someone cares about them at work.  All the higher level engagement areas like encouraging someone’s development or helping them believe in the higher purpose of the work, do not matter at all if someone does not understand what is expected of them.

Many times we try and motivate someone to improve by talking about how their performance affects their teammates or that they could get promoted to full time if they were to improve.  These can be helpful approaches, but only if the expectations are kept at the heart of the matter.  The most important thing is that someone knows they are not meeting expectations and that you are going to try and help them get over the hump; that you care about them.

How many times in your work experiences have you seen a manager deal proactively with problem employees?  I think more often than not, everyone has their head in the sand.  Many times problem employees have never had anyone hold them accountable this way or had anyone care about their success this way.  If dealt with head on like this, the most common result is improvement.  The next most common result is that the person quits.  If a serial under-performer comes to the realization that you are not going to let them blend in and hide and they don’t want to improve, they will move on to somewhere else where they can hide.  Occasionally under-performers have to be let go.  At least when handled this way, you and your whole team can feel that the person was given a good chance to improve before they had to be terminated.

Some of my most memorable successes as a manager have been with previously problem employees. When you know that you had a hand in helping someone succeed, there is no better feeling!

IBEX Payroll extends our profound respect and immeasurable gratitude to all the ancestors and keepers of the land on whose traditional territories our work takes place. We acknowledge that we are on Treaty 1 territory, the traditional gathering place of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene people and the traditional homeland of the Métis people. This land is sacred, historical, and significant. 

Every time we acknowledge this truth, we have an invitation and an opportunity to reflect on the wrongs of the past, what we do in the present, and what we can do to continually honour the people whose lands and water we benefit from today. 

This statement only acts as a first step in honouring the land we reside on and its peoples, and must be paired with education, understanding and informed action.