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By Darryl Stewart
The right way to deal with your problem employee

The right way to deal with your problem employee

I get asked this question all the time: “How can I fix my problem employee?”

The question is often asked with frustration and the implication that the employee is obviously the problem. I sigh a little every time I am asked this question because the answer is never a short or simple one.

My first question to the person is usually: “Whose fault is it if one of your reports is performing so badly that you consider them a ‘problem’ employee?” The answer is usually “the employee’s”. This is the wrong answer. If you have an employee who is a problem for you for any significant length of time, it is your fault. I believe this for two reasons:

  1. Many performance problems can be fixed by a caring, competent leader.
  2. If the problem can’t be fixed, the leader needs to end the person’s employment. If they are an unfixable case and you accept them hanging around and setting a bad example for others, what kind of leader are you?

Let’s look at the first point. How does a leader help solve a performance issue?

It starts with making the employee aware of the problem. So many times, this simple first step is not in place. Instead, leaders gripe and talk about discipline or firing or bringing in professional help. This is crazy! Would you expect someone to get better at playing an instrument without the teacher listening to them play and offering up corrections? Would we have the teacher just sit there suffering through terrible sounds and then complain about how bad the student is behind their back? Of course not! The first thing to do is to sit down with the person and explain the problem you see without judgment. Simply state the problem and listen to their explanation.

Say it like this… …not like this
I notice you have come in over 15 minutes late three of the last five days. You are always late.
Tuesday, when you were lead staff on the shift, there were three items incomplete on the cleaning list. You are careless and messy.
The current project you are working on failed quality assurance within one minute yesterday. It was not ready for testing according to the QA team. You are rushing your work and not testing it thoroughly. You don’t care about quality.

Notice the better feedback simply states a fact, without suggesting bad character or poor judgment. When you state a fact, people are less likely to get defensive. Defensiveness occurs when people sense judgment. Sticking to the facts helps avoid that. 

We should always provide this feedback as close to the time we become aware of the issue as possible, while details are fresh. Don’t save this up for a scheduled review. Dumping on someone at a review is sure to backfire with defensiveness and not help you get to the source of the problem.

With the facts stated this way, we then ask the person: Why? Why did the cleaning list not get done? We listen to the answers and we deal with the problems we hear. Perhaps the person did not understand the requirement. We clarify and have them repeat back in their own words what is required: “The cleaning list needs to be completed every shift. If not completed, I need to let you know why and make sure the next shift is aware. Just not doing it is not acceptable.”

Perhaps we realize through discussion that they need training—we arrange it.

Perhaps we realize through discussion they think some rule or procedure is silly and/or does not apply to them—we explain otherwise.

Perhaps we realize they did not have enough time or the right tools to get the job done—we deal with that.

Perhaps we realize they are not cut out for some part of the job, but we see things we can work with—we adjust the duties.

Through the listening and the follow-up to what we learn, as described above, improvement can often be seen. Just the act of showing we care about their performance enough to clarify expectations, listen to them, and do what we can is often enough to start things on a better path. And consistent follow-up with listening and support can continue the cycles of improvement. Very often, this cycle is not happening. It is the only way I know to help someone improve.

To my second point—sometimes even your best efforts to encourage improvement will fail and you have to terminate. The person might not play along (bad attitude) or the person is not cut out for the work (no aptitude). Our job as the leader is to keep giving feedback and providing encouragement and support. Sometimes when we do this for a while with a problem employee, we come to the realization that the person is not going to succeed in the role. We have had the same conversations a few too many times and our judgment says “enough is enough”. The beauty of our regular attempt to help the person succeed, even when we realize it is not going to work, is that they have been given regular, factual feedback on where they are falling short. We can go ahead and terminate with a clear conscience. In my experience, a termination is hardly ever required if we are doing our best to work with the person. They will either improve or they will resign when they realize that they are not cut out for the position, or when they realize they will not be able to “get away” with not doing a good job anymore.

This process can be frustrating to say the least. People don’t make it easy. Your patience will be tested, but you will solve the problem with consistent effort along these lines. If you have ever had the experience of having a problem employee start performing well or leave the workplace, you know the amazing feeling that comes over the whole team in either case. This is the payoff for you and your team when you succeed.

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