Difficult Employees: A Bad Apple in the Bunch
Are you and your staff dealing with a difficult employee who may be adequate -- even good -- at his job but constantly complains and stirs up discontent? Does this person always quote the HR manual and split hairs about benefits? Does he knock down the other departments or spend time "advising" other staff about how they are being taken advantage of and should "stand up" for themselves?
Such difficult employees can affect your department's bottom line more than you might think. In fact, a negative attitude can have a far bigger ripple effect on a department than one employee's deficient skills. Negativity can infect coworkers and be a horrendous time sink.
Because it's difficult to quantify these so-called "soft" interpersonal issues, many managers have difficulty dealing effectively with negative staff. They avoid taking steps toward change until they are frustrated and the department's morale is affected.
The first step in turning around this potentially toxic, yet common, management dilemma is to clearly articulate to this employee that his attitude and inability to positively contribute to the department are performance issues equal to not performing primary job responsibilities. They affect the department's bottom line and overall effectiveness in ways that are harder to measure, but nonetheless drag the department down.
The following steps will help ensure that you handle the situation successfully:
- Get the HR department behind you before you have the conversation with your negative employee. The HR folks can advise you on needed documentation, time frame and how your organization's own culture addresses these issues.
- Clearly articulate to your department that you expect more than efficient individual contributions by your staff. Rather, each person is responsible for building a respectful, collaborative team environment that both supports the department's productivity and the company as a whole.
- Directly tie the staff member's negative behaviors to the department's core goals, functions and performance objectives.
- Do not describe the employee's problem as an "attitude" problem. This is too subjective and will in all likelihood be viewed as personal dislike rather than a legitimate performance problem. Cite specific examples drawing the relationship between the negative behaviour and staff productivity and morale.
- Refer this person to resources that will coax him out of a negative pattern of behavior. Many organizations have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that confidentially advise employees. By doing this, you are identifying the problem behaviour, and also sending the message that you want the person to change and are willing to help in this endeavour.
- Park your own frustration at the door. By the time many managers finally confront a negative employee, they have usually been picking up the pieces for quite a while, helping other staff cope with the negativity, even designing "work arounds" to maintain peace. Despite the mounting frustration, airing it in this context will only diminish your chances of fixing the problem.
Another helpful strategy is to rate, in employee performance reviews, each staff member's contribution to the overall functioning and morale of the department. This way, there's less chance someone will claim he is being singled out. Generalize this expectation to all staff. Send and regularly reinforce the message that how the group works with each other and how people support the overarching goals of the department are as much performance variables as meeting sales figures or project deadlines.
Actress Mae West was famous for saying, "It's not what I say; it's the way that I say it. It's not what I do, it's the way that I do it." The truth is that the most successful people in organizations have always built good relationships while being valuable contributors to their companies.
A McKinsey study concluded 59 percent of employees would be "delighted" if managers dealt with problem employees, but only 7 percent of those responding to employee surveys believed their companies were actually doing it. By taking on your negative employee, you send the message to your department that you are a strong manager up to the task, and reinforce the positive contributions of your hardworking, positive staff.