Problem Employees – Don’t Shoot, Talk First

Bad Day at the Office

Problem employees have always been a challenge for leaders and managers. But COVID has flagged the need to understand team members better and help them become the best version of themselves. As COVID rules change, finding and keeping good people is harder than ever. These times call for greater appreciation of how to turn problem employees into model team members. Or at least, try.

We start by outlining the steps to take with these individuals. In passing we look at the pandemic’s impact. Possible causes of poor performance can include personal issues, and you need to be aware of those. We go on to look at ways to spot problem employees and deal with them, firmly but fairly. Finally, we talk about how supportive workplace cultures reduce the chances of problem employees emerging. But you still have to do what’s necessary.

Be Clear About Your Ground Rules

When employees cause problems, experts recommend these steps:

  • Seek to understand the issues: Before you sit down and talk, make sure you understand the situation and have an accurate and impartial assessment of the facts.
  • Meet the employee: Talk to the person in private. Be respectful but clear. Explain how they’re falling short, how it’s affecting the business and what you expect by way of improvement. Give them an action plan. As appropriate, spell out the company rules and the likely consequences if they don’t improve. Let them speak and ask questions. Close the meeting by confirming the employee has fully understood what you discussed.
  • Document the discussion and keep a note in the employee’s file.
  • Follow up with the employee to see if there’s been an improvement.
  • If they don’t improve, check with HR or your legal advisors and make sure you go through the correct procedures. Showing you’ve acted reasonably will protect you if they bring an unfair dismissal claim.

This sequence is applicable to managers in any business. Use your listening skills and get to the root of the problem. Your conversation may reveal information that prompts you to other action besides pulling the employee up on their shortcomings. If so, you need to empathise and investigate, then take appropriate measures. Work with them to resolve the situation as far as possible, and give positive feedback as they improve. Be firm, but also sympathetic and supportive.

Feedback written on a white sticker with paper clip

Is There Anybody Out There?

Problem employees may be having personal difficulties, which affect their performance. We’ll get onto that in a moment. But first, the pandemic has severely impacted our mental health and wellbeing, making pre-existing mental health problems worse. Humans are social creatures. Working without seeing anyone can make us feel cut off.

This feeling of lack of engagement working from home is a major cause of team members turning into problem employees. People can feel isolated and disconnected from their employers. Managers may find it hard to detect when individuals are struggling, and give them the right support. And when you do give help, employees may feel they’re not being supported at the right level. Obtaining help is the employee’s choice, but doing inadequate work is not.

Reasons Not to Be Cheerful

If an employee’s performance is poor, possible reasons may include:

  • Confusion about expectations.
  • Feeling overqualified and under-challenged.
  • Lack of commitment.
  • Confusing goals.
  • Co-worker tensions.
  • Ineffective systems.
  • Personal issues.

Let’s park the other reasons on the list for a moment, and focus on the last one, personal issues.

Let’s Get Personal

Employees may have personal worries, which affect their work. These can include marital troubles, problems with their children, LGBTQ issues, family illness and bereavement, or money worries.

Job-related stress and workplace conflicts can also cause noticeable behaviour changes in employees. They may be sexually harassed. Or they are getting bullied because they are different in some way to the other workers. You have a legal responsibility to take action, if this is the case.

Mental health matters motivational quote on the letter board

Employees may also have underlying mental health issues. Employers have a duty of care. This means they must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. If staff members feel they can talk openly about their mental health, problems are less likely to build up. This could lead to them needing less time off for mental health issues and improved morale in the workplace. Employees can be dismissed if they can’t do their job due to mental health, following a full and fair process. But it’s the employer’s responsibility to protect employees’ mental health.  Dismissal should be the last resort.

Another common cause of poor performance that is not on this list is alcohol or drug abuse. This can go hand in hand with personal problems as people seek to distract themselves from their troubling situation.

Some Early Signs Include:
  • Lack of alertness.
  • Impaired judgement and decision making.
  • Memory lapses.
  • Mood swings, anger or apathy.
  • Inability to stay on task.
  • Abuse of break times.
  • Absenteeism.
  • Lateness.
  • Procrastination.
  • Inattention to detail.
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism.

If you see a decline in an employee’s performance and think personal problems are contributing, it’s time to step in. Start with an informal talk about their declining performance. Don’t try and diagnose the problem or be a therapist, but suggest they get professional help. And keep it confidential.

Let’s Get Down to Business

How good are you at spotting different kinds of problem employees? Here are some lists people have drawn up, and some suggested solutions:

4 Types of Difficult Employees

Employees at work procrastinating by playing on phones

  • Snoozer: Turns up half an hour late most days. Sometimes there’s a valid excuse, other times a steaming hot coffee in one hand, Danish in the other. If it gets to be a pattern, clearly standards of professionalism aren’t being upheld. Issue a warning and give them a chance to improve.
  • Grump: Does well in the interview and for the first couple of months, but after a while, you see their true colours. Ask if anything’s going on at home or at work that affects their attitude, If they say yes, find out more. Maybe their attitude stems from a clash with another employee, or maybe they feel overworked. If so, you can do something about it… But if that doesn’t solve the problem, you need to go through your company policy with them and issue a warning. If they continue, consider transitioning them out of the business.
  • Patient: Always sick, but never seriously. They’ve gone over their allotted paid sick days and are continually absent. You try to be understanding, but the work just isn’t being done. If you’re in doubt about someone’s actual health and ability to do their job, always ask for a medical certificate.
  • Bludger: Turns up, but isn’t actually doing any work. They show up to meetings and send the occasional email, but their productivity isn’t reflecting the hours they are there.

5 Kinds of Toxic Employees

These problem individuals are so called because unchecked, their behaviour can infect the business. The list includes:

  • Incompetent: Helpless, disorganised, unreliable, they often have no credibility.
  • Slacker: Low on motivation, high in absenteeism, wasting time online or chatting instead of working. Rarely do their work on time.
  • Egoist: Unaware of their limitations, they’re prone to burnout. They often complain and have negative attitudes, which undermine their colleagues.
  • Gossip: They’re often in other people’s workspaces, dishing the dirt on other colleagues. This can be vicious and ruin people’s reputations, maybe even their careers.
  • Sociopath: These are the worst, in possible impact on the business. They include backstabbers, who dislike competition and feel threatened by it. Their disdain for authority often makes them subordinate. Bullies sometimes come under this heading.

It’s important to remember, there may be underlying causes for toxic employees’ challenging behaviour. If they have marriage or mental health issues, suggest getting professional help. Encourage them to change, and explain the behaviour you expect. Staying on point, don’t ignore what might seem like harmless disagreements between workers. Note who is regularly involved, and look for patterns. This could indicate you have a toxic employee you need to deal with.

You can’t always spot these people at the interview. Once they’re in the job, they might be hard to get rid of. That’s especially so if their behaviour spreads to others and is seen as acceptable. This includes demeaning and discriminatory language and abuse, which they pass off as banter.

Female employee procrastinating and playing with her hair

8 Types of Difficult Employee

Jim McCormick, author of The First Time Manager, identifies these:

  • Attacker: Always disagrees with you or their team members. Tries to undermine you and block the team’s efforts to reach their goals.
  • Comic: Thinks their main job is to entertain others. Having a laugh at work is great, but to excess, it distracts from getting the work done.
  • Deserter: Leaves the team, either mentally or physically. Drops out and stops contributing or even performing.
  • Limelight seeker: Likes to take credit for other people’s work, and brags about how crucial they are to the business’s success.
  • Moonlighter: Treats their regular job as secondary to some other interest in the workplace.
  • Not my Job: Won’t do anything that’s not in their job description.
  • Bleeding heart: They reckon they’ve given everything for the company and got nothing in return.
  • Complainer: Likes to moan about everything! It could be the workload, their colleagues, the boss, the clients, the commute. They are dangerous because their negativity spreads.

13 Traits of Disengaged Employees

  • Constantly complaining about their situation.
  • Always making excuses.
  • Lacking enthusiasm.
  • Don’t help others.
  • Gossiping and spreading bad vibes.
  • Lying about getting the job done.
  • Know everything.
  • Want to be independent and do things on their own.
  • Constantly being irresponsible.
  • Not taking initiative.
  • Lacking curiosity.
  • Not wanting to grow in their job.
  • Distracted and unfocused.

Could YOU be the Problem? Creating a Supportive Business Culture

Here’s a thought. If you have problem employees like the ones in these lists, it’s just possible you are a problem boss, and they’re reacting. Do any of these classic signs sound like you?

  • Close up of a pointed finger with blurred man behindWanting to control everything.
  • Indecisive.
  • You’re always right.
  • Resistant to change
  • Micromanaging every little task.
  • Leading by fear.
  • Lacking a clear vision.
  • Playing favourites.
  • Being arrogant and always bragging.
  • Taking all the credit, and blaming everyone else for mistakes.
  • Walking around the office being angry.
  • Making decisions based on emotions.
  • Not doing any team building.

There is a way to discourage your team from becoming problem employees, and for you to become a better boss.  This is, to create a business culture which brings out the best in everyone.

Here’s a Simple ‘12 Step’ Programme:

  1. Lead by example: Don’t encourage your people to be difficult, by you or your managers being like that. Hold them accountable for demonstrating the conduct you expect.
  2. Clearly communicate expectations: Communicate your rules and expectations, so employees know what’s expected of them and, importantly, what they can expect from you. Confirm these expectations when you set goals, and provide regular feedback.
  3. Foster inclusivity: Make sure your policies and decisions are free from bias, and employees are paid fairly. Encourage sharing of ideas and feedback, and take all complaints seriously.
  4. Train supervisors on workplace policies and how to administer them.
  5. Manage team meetings: Intervene tactfully when an employee takes over the discussion, goes off topic, dismisses or otherwise puts down co-workers or takes credit for someone else’s idea or achievement.
  6. Prepare employees for change: Give plenty of advance notice and take time to explain.
  7. Improve teamwork: While some conflict is inevitable and can be creative, take steps to reduce the chances of it becoming a problem. Clarify rules and expectations: define roles and do some team building.
  8. Motivate employees: Engaged and motivated employees are less likely to cause problems.
  9. Offer flexible work arrangements: Many businesses, from SMEs to corporates, have had to do this as a result of COVID, so some good has come out of it.
  10. Give employees autonomy in how they complete tasks.
  11. Offer career development opportunities.
  12. Provide challenging work assignments: Capitalise on employees’ skills and knowledge.


And Finally: Problem Employees? Problem Solved

Managing problem employees is a skill that comes with experience. As a quick recap, following these steps will equip you to resolve the situation:

  • Identify the causes of the problem.
  • Criticise the behaviour, not the person.
  • Be open to feedback.
  • Give clear directions.
  • Set down expectations and specific consequences.
  • Monitor progress.
  • Plan ahead.
  • Stay calm and show respect.

There’s a lot of published advice on this. Amazon lists various books for dealing with problem employees. Gini Graham Scott’s A Survival Guide to Managing Employees from Hell sounds particularly interesting. It’s subtitled ‘Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers and Other Workplace Demons.’ We quoted earlier from Jim McCormick, author of The First Time Manager.  He uses the same kind of breezy language. You can also download various free PDFs on managing and motivating difficult employees.

As we said, it’s the employer’s responsibility to protect employees’ mental health. Mind offers free Guides to Wellness action plans, downloadable at ACAS also offers training courses and online guidance on supporting mental health at work, on its website. And if you’re in the grocery industry, Grocery Aid offers a wealth of resources.

Managing problem employees can be hard, but there are clear ways to do it fairly. If they consistently fail to improve to your required standard, you will have to let them go. Be sure to follow the proper procedures, and you will protect your business and your reputation. And that’s definitely a good result.

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