How to Deal with a Difficult Employee

Every survey of Federal employees indicates that their biggest source of frustration is management's unwillingness and/or inability to deal with difficult employees. Dedicated employees hate to work hard all year and then see a co-worker skate by, putting in little effort and pulling down the organization, and then receive the same rating and bonus that they do.

When this happens it has a demoralizing effect on the workforce. They conclude management is weak and not serious about performance. Some will leave in response to this while others will slow down or in some cases, virtually give up. Regardless, unless management deals with their problem employees, it is highly unlikely it will be able to have a top notch organization.

So how do you deal with a problem employee? The simple answer is you should treat them fairly, firmly, directly and promptly. That is, treat any problem employee in a manner that is consistent with your organization's published guidance (e.g. standards of conduct, table of penalties, normal practices, etc.)

Problem employees generally fall into three categories: 1) poor performers; 2) people who commit misconduct; and 3) a combination of both. No matter which category a problem employee fits into, the first step is always to sit down and talk with him and let him know why he is considered to be a problem. Such a direct approach is the right thing to do since in many cases, the employee may not even know he is considered to be problem. Moreover, by telling the employee what he is doing wrong, you give him the opportunity to improve, and sometimes he will make a concerted effort to do better and that will be that.

If this doesn't work, follow your organization's process for dealing with problem employees. For misconduct, gather the facts, make sure you have good documentation, consult with both your boss and an experienced Human Resources Management (HRM) Specialist, and then take the appropriate action. If you are dealing with a one-time act by a good employee who has simply gone astray, counseling or a low end disciplinary action will probably suffice.


Strong action required for the bottom 10% 

However, if you are dealing with someone from the bottom 10% of your workforce who is clearly a problem, consider taking a stronger action. After all, the concept of progressive discipline is to take the lowest form of discipline that is likely to change an employee's behavior. If you are dealing with someone from the bottom 10%, i.e. someone with a poor track record to begin with, you are much better off taking a stronger action in order to get the employee's attention and put you in a stronger position.

Remember, a problem employee will only take you seriously when she believes you are serious and are prepared to fire her if her behavior doesn't improve. Otherwise, if you take an excruciatingly slow approach to progressive discipline, the employee is likely to use the system to grind you down by constantly filing a series of complaints against you.

Another way to think of this is the sooner you bring a conduct problem to a head, the sooner a solution will appear.

With respect to a performance problem, simply follow your process. Make a good faith effort to counsel and try and help someone who has a performance problem. If that doesn't work, move on to the next step (usually a Performance Improvement Plan or PIP.) Do not hope that the performance problem will go away because it rarely does. Deal with it by applying the system as intended. In this way, everyone will get the message you are serious about your performance expectations and people will adjust accordingly.

If the employee then fails the PIP, she must be removed from her position. This is the right thing to do because if the employee is given the opportunity to improve along with an appropriate degree of support and still can't do the job, it is time to remove her and find someone else who can do the job.

While no one likes to fire another person, if he is unwilling and/or unable to behave and/or perform, and you follow your organization's processes and procedures accordingly, you should terminate his employment. It is the right thing to do, will send a powerful message you are serious about performance and will result in a more satisfied and motivated workforce.


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Stewart Liff writes on human resources management issues in government for OhMyGov. A recipient of the President's Council on Management Improvement Award, he is the author of five books, including the just-released Improving the Performance of Government Employees. His expertise includes employee relations, labor relations, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), performance management, staffing, training, rewards and recognition, metrics, systems design and succession planning.


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