Managing the difficult

Handling employees that cause problems – for one reason or another – requires a delicate approach.
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Anybody who has been a manager for any length of time has had a “difficult” employee. Fortunately in my career I can say that just about every such difficult person is somebody that I inherited from a previous regime. There was a lady, for example, who always seemed to be up to something — other than work. One time she was slyly watching the soaps on a TV hidden under her desk; another time she was taking orders on the telephone for her part-time janitorial supply business. She was always hiding something. It was like dealing with a child who thinks that its parents are blind and stupid.

I've even had employees who have responded to “Why do you think you are still working here?” with “Because you like me?” Or the employee I suspended after we found he had placed unauthorized advertising: Before he left the building we had a conversation to make sure there was “nothing else” out there. He said there wasn't — and then 20 minutes later, a dealer called to find out why he was supposed to keep quiet about some co-op advertising. The suspension turned into a termination.

I believe that quite a few difficult employees have just learned a behavior that helps them survive. It is a bit like the way most of us behaved when we were bullied on the school playground. You do something that makes you less vulnerable — less visible. We don't want to resolve the problem, we want it to go away. Or we go away.

Many managers allow these people to actually kidnap the work environment. But the first time you give in to what is often an unreasonable demand, you are hooked for the next time. As the advice columnists preach, “You allow yourself to be taken advantage of.” When the employee's behavior was allowed by the previous manager it is very difficult to turn it around because the employee expects things to continue as they were. Seeing grown adults pout does not create a very happy workplace. But, at the same time, it is a great deal more profitable to be able to retain an employee than go through the costs of replacement and training.

My father was a born manager. He coaxed every positive thing possible out of his public sector employees, and they loved him for it. He pioneered the fight against dress codes that included hats for men. He persuaded very senior government employees to force disabled access in the workplace decades before it became a cause celebré. And one thing that he told me was that you have to visit your staff every day that you can. That paid handsomely for me and I adopted it 100 percent after I watched one of my own managers do exactly the same.

He would visit the labs and greet everybody by name and talk, on occasion, about the employee's family, dogs, whatever. He never criticized anything that he saw wrong, but as soon as he was back in his office on the top floor my telephone would ring. “Jones is leaving scope probes on the floor — they're expensive” or “Smith seemed to be on the telephone yet again when I went through.” He followed chain-of-command rules to the letter.

What's really important when dealing with unacceptable behavior is to go for the act, not the person. Go after behavior that you personally know about — not after rumors that have come to you from elsewhere. Have any discussion either alone or, if a chaperone is required or desirable, with a nonconfrontational member of the HR department. Time things right, keep eye contact, keep calm. Most of the time when you can keep the conversation to one about “us” as opposed to “them” things will get better. If a manager allows higher management to be perceived as the problem, then the behavior will never change.

We often know little about our employees' home life (and should be dissuaded from asking by the amount of litigation in the world out there today), and if the problem is there, then little can usually be done about the workplace behavior.

The types of problem people I have seen include: the jealous, the meddler, the “perhaps” person, the friendly-to-your-face person, the perfectionist, the bully, the avoider, the never-can-do person, and the complainer.

Have I really seen all these? You bet. Have you had other experiences you'd like to share with fellow readers?

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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