Diagnosing Your Problem Employee

You are going to have difficult employees. If you don’t have one now, it’s just a matter of time. That’s because you are working with human beings, and they have an annoying habit of not behaving like robots. When their programming gets messed up, it’s up to you—the boss—to diagnose the problem and solve it.

Unlike the equipment you depend on to produce the work your customers require, your employees can’t just be rebooted. You can call in a mechanic to diagnose what’s wrong with the dry cleaning machine or figure out what’s wrong with the press pads, but humans are trickier. It’s not a job you can hand off to an outsider, either. You’re just going to have to dive in and get your hands dirty on this one.

Bad Apple?

Some difficult employees are just… difficult. It’s part of their personality. Hopefully you picked up on this in the hiring process and passed that individual by, but if not, you need to figure out what the problem is.

Perhaps your employee falls into one of the categories of problem workers. There are lots of types of troublesome employees. You know the crew.

  • Deena the Downer
  • Walter the Time Waster
  • Sean the Snooze Button Addict
  • Vanessa the Victim
  • Patrick the Proud
  • Soon-to-Retire Ramona
  • Messy Mike
  • Incompetent Irene
  • Bored-out-of-his-Mind Bill

One employee’s poor performance or behavior can have a dampening effect on the whole time and bring down productivity. The last thing you want is a worker who is always glum, or one who wastes his time (and others’), one who’s always late, or one who feels picked on continually, one who refuses to learn, or one’s who’s killing time and waiting to retire, one who can’t organize his work place properly, or one who just doesn’t get the work process, one who is so bored he can hardly stay awake through a shift.

But you also can’t just fire them. For one thing, you need somebody in that position. It’s hard to get workers these days. And this one is trained (even if he or she is not living up to expectations.)

Square Peg?

It’s possible that the person who is not doing well is actually in the wrong job? Some people do well with repetitive work. Others need a bit more stimulation and change from project to project. Still others are great with people. Another might do best in the back office. Assess your problem employee for job suitability first of all.

  • What are his strengths?
  • What does she do badly?
  • Is there a lack of training?
  • Have there been accidents?

Think about your employee and answer these questions. Then invite him or her into the office and ask them the same ones. You might be surprised by the answers. You could have a wonderful person to handle customer contacts and chasing down order details but you’ve got her running a press. Or perhaps your bored person would be great doing the pick up and delivery routes with more variety.

Once you’ve ruled out the possibility the person is just a square peg in a round hole, you’ll have to look further for the root of the issue that is driving you and the rest of the staff crazy.

What’s going on?

Some bosses are happiest taking a hands-off approach to their employees. They don’t interact with them, don’t want to know about them, just want them to get on with the job. Less stressful for the boss, but quite dehumanizing for the worker. To get the best performance out of people, you have to treat them like people.

Issues that are dragging down attitudes and productivity can vary. The workload may be overwhelming. Sure, there are times when it’s “all hands to the pumps” for a special job or due to a back-up in the plant, but if it’s like that all the time, people burn out.

Do you show your employees respect? Do you call them by name, thank them for their work, and compensate them properly? Do you work around personal needs, ask their opinions for changes that can help the workflow, or heed their warnings about equipment problems? A person who feels valued and appreciated will do almost anything to keep the job where they get that affirmation.

What vibes are you giving off? Are your people worried about losing their jobs at any moment? Do you you project an attitude of confidence in the company and in its employees? If a whiff of a rumor about the company’s stability sends your people to the break room to check the want ads at lunch time, you’ve got a problem. You are the captain of your ship, and should be able to tell everyone where it’s going and how you’re going to get there—together.

Life happens

Employees are not cogs in a machine. They actually have a full life outside your plant. If you forbid them from letting that life affect their work, you are setting yourself and them up for failure. New parents are more tired. Losing a friend or loved one can severely impact a worker’s concentration and joy in life. Physical ailments, depression, and fear of the future will result in issues at work.

Canada’s rules regarding “reasonable accommodation” require you as the employer to adapt the workplace to the employees up to the point when it becomes unreasonable for you to do so. That can mean physical barriers, additional training for employees who are mentally challenged, time off to deal with a personal crisis, reasonable health leave when they are sick, and much more.

Rather than waiting until an employee has to insist on accommodation in a legal setting, it is far better to keep your eyes and ears open. When an employee is struggling, pull him or her aside and ask what is wrong. Give the employee the space and freedom to confide in you. Don’t come on like a bulldog and demand, “What is wrong with you these days? You are nothing but a headache!” Instead, show your concern positively. “I noticed you are struggling a bit these days. We value your contribution and want to be sure we help you any way we can. What’s going on?”

The old saying that you attract more flies with honey is true. Being “sweet” to a troubled worker can bring out issues you didn’t know were affecting him or her, and give you an opportunity to shore up a team member with compassion as well as professionalism.

I don’t want to do that!

Do you feel sick just thinking about talking to an under-performing employee, or having to curb the behavior of one who is making the whole team crazy? Sweaty palms, heart palpitations, restless nights? Congratulations, you are perfectly normal. Nobody likes confrontation. But if your business is to be as successful as it can be, you need to be in charge of everybody. It’s your job.

Prepare yourself for the conversation(s) in advance. Walk yourself through some basic principles.

  • You are going to initiate the conversation. Don’t wait for things to blow up.
  • Take deep breaths, and count to 5 before responding in knee-jerk ways to defensive comments made by the employee.
  • Focus on what is going wrong, not the personality of the person.
  • Keep talking until you get to the bottom of the problem.
  • Ask for feedback on how you/the company can help.
  • Together, plan a way for you to gauge progress and for the employee to feel he or she is doing better. “Let’s work toward increasing the number of shirts processed by 5% this week.”
  • Give instructions that are crystal clear, with expectations and consequences outlined.
  • Accept that a discussion can have two outcomes—good and bad. Don’t take it personally.

Tips from others

You’re not the only boss to have to approach this sticky situation. So take an evening and learn more about handling people from those who have been there, done that and even got the t-shirt. Here are some links to get you started.

Dealing with Difficult Employees

Dealing with Difficult Employees

How to Stop Your Employees from Driving Each Other Crazy

How to Keep One Negative Employee from Spoiling the Whole Bunch

An E-book on Employee Fulfillment

Above all else, remember the Golden Rule. Treat every employee as you would wish the ideal boss would treat you. Helping them become productive and successful only helps your business.

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