Five Tips for Dealing with Difficult Employees
By: Paul Falcone
Few things are more frustrating and angst-ridden than dealing with difficult employees, particularly if you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur, where difficult employees can cause greater damage.
There are effective ways of handling difficult employees that are more effective than others.
Addressing substandard employee performance and misconduct issues consistently and proactively will help you increase employee productivity, protect your company legally and restore camaraderie to your team.
Here are some key methods of management interventions in managing problem employees.
1. Distinguish between substandard job performance and misconduct. Employers often mistakenly treat these two classifications of infractions similarly when, in fact, they are seen (and should be treated) very differently in the eyes of the law.
2. Performance often requires “steps” of corrective action. When it comes to performance (and attendance) issues, many companies follow a “three steps before you’re out” type of disciplinary action model, where a verbal warning is followed by a written and then a final written warning.
The three-strike approach is typically considered fair by almost all standards, whether employees are union or non-union.
Much will depend, however, on the employee’s tenure and potential membership in a protected class: As a rule, the longer the employee has been employed by your organization, the more “workplace due process” he or she may be entitled to.
It follows that a recent hire and a long-term employee will typically be treated very differently in terms of what constitutes appropriate notice of substandard employee performance.
3. Conduct provides for more immediate action. Conduct gives you, the employer, greater discretion in terms of according the appropriate level of corrective action.
The three-step model under the “substandard job performance” category above is not necessarily required when dealing with difficult employees who engage in misconduct.
In those cases, employers have a lot more discretion to progress immediately to a final written warning (or even immediate employee termination) for a first offense. Misconduct infractions that typically rise to the level of immediate termination, or “summary offenses,” include theft, embezzlement, and forgery.
That’s easy enough to understand, but an outburst of insubordination, an offensive rumormonger caught in the act, or someone shouting obscenities at a peer may easily qualify for a final written warning based solely on the egregious nature of their actions -- even if this is a first-time occurrence.
In situations like this, you’re placing the individual in question on notice that this is a “third rail” issue. The message: engage in this type of behavior again and you’ll be firing yourself.
4. Remember that verbal engagements need not be confrontational. Before you move forward with documented corrective action in the form of a written warning, be sure that you first attempt to address the infraction verbally, whenever possible.
Spoken respectfully and quietly, your message will carry even more gravity than if shared with emotion or drama of any sort.
Offer to help, make yourself available to support the individual to reach established performance goals, but re-establish performance and productivity expectations.
Seen this way, strong leadership is constantly supportive but “has the teeth” necessary to escalate matters as needed.
5. Escalate to documented corrective action when appropriate. When discussions and conversations don’t yield the results you were hoping for as the business owner or department leader, then stepping up your game by providing documented disciplinary action is the next logical step.
This not only protects your company legally but also escalates the seriousness of the matter in the employee’s mind.
Close your document with the statement: “Failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement may result in further disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.”
Such consequence language in the progressive discipline realm is exceptionally clear and incontestable in its intent.
In addition, if circumstances warrant, include “last chance agreement” language like this: “This is your last chance, and your position is now in immediate jeopardy of being lost.”
With a firm record of verbal interventions and written corrective action in place, most problematic performers or workers with bad attitudes will simply move on to other organizations.
Should they try and challenge you legally, you’ll have an exceptionally strong defense.
More importantly, you’ll send the right message to the rest of your team that you’re supportive and willing to make yourself part of the solution but also ready to confront substandard employee performance or workplace misconduct head-on, without hesitation.
That is probably the most important management skill of all.
Paul Falcone is Vice President of Human Resources at a major Fortune 500 company. He is the author of several books including 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.