Every manager deals with this problem at some point in their career. We do our best as managers to hire the right people, manage their expectations, train them, and nurture their growth. But, invariably there is that one problem employee who falls off the rails. They don’t perform well, despite trying their hardest. Or, they’re unable to get along with fellow employees. Or, they’re just plain hard to deal with. But, as a manager, dealing with difficult employees and engaging in conflict resolution is precisely what you are expected to do. The following steps should help, the next time you’re faced with the difficult employee dynamic.
- Use the senses you have, not the ones you may think you have. There is a tremendous temptation when dealing with a difficult employee to simply ignore them. You know there’s a problem. And, there’s always a temptation to jump to a conclusion as to why the problem exists. On some level, you may think you have ESP, that you can read their mind. You presume they don’t care. Or, you cubbyhole them as lazy. Or, just naturally angry. Watch what you say to yourself about the employee. Be as objective as you can possibly be. Bottom line: you can’t know why they are behaving the way they are unless you involve the senses you really have.
Look. Watch them. Pay attention to what’s going on. You may uncover interpersonal strife between the troubled employee and another. You may see signs of stress spilling over from their personal life. You are much more likely to see a problem by being out in the workspace watching than by avoiding the problem in your office.
Listen. Prepare ahead of time by collecting your thoughts and listing the issues you want to understand. Then, engage the problem employee in conversation. Now, here’s the key: you do the listening, not the talking. Ask open-ended questions. As they talk you will likely pick up on the issues that are leading to the poor performance. Use active listening skills to clarify what you think you are hearing. Take note of the things the employee says that relate to the performance issues.
- Chronicle your conversations. As one of our colleagues says, “Document. Document. Document.” After you’ve had a conversation with a difficult employee, while it is still fresh in your mind, write down the details. There are two reasons for doing this. The first has to do with how dependable your memory is. You may find yourself needing to refer back to your notes later on – a major challenge if there are no notes to which you can refer back. The second reason is that, should the employee not be redeemable, you may need supporting documentation in order to end their employment.
- Be clear. Clarity equals comfort. And comfort equals confidence. We can’t stress this enough. Great employees always start with very clear job descriptions, expectations clearly defined, and clear and honest behavioral feedback. Most managers think of negative feedback as one of the hardest things they have to do. Consider changing your point of view. Think of negative feedback as a gift instead of an antagonistic challenge. Job discomfort is stressful. Being clear about what you expect is the surest way to reduce that stress. In the end, that reduction of stress is the greatest gift you can give your difficult employees. Clear steps towards improvement will make both their job and your job easier.
- Set a single standard. Double standards are performance killers. Accepting substandard performance from one employee and calling another out on the same issue is a surefire recipe for creating a difficult employee. So, be consistent in your expectations across the board. One standard for all employees. And, enforce the standard consistently. Being upset about a shortcoming one time and laissez faire about it the next sends confusing messages to your employees.
- Establish consequences. Make sure that your employees know the consequences of substandard performance. And then enforce those expectations without exception. Your problem employee should know exactly what the consequences of continued substandard performance are.
- Terminate thoroughly. If it gets to the point where you must let a problem employee go, make sure to be thorough in your process. Discuss the termination with your human resources department, corporate attorney, and any others as required by your company policies, so that you understand the steps you must take and any legal ramifications.
- Let us help. At the end of the day, the half-dozen techniques we list here may still leave you with questions. Do not hesitate to reach out to us should the need arise.