Use “Snapshots” Not Potshots to Wake Up “Problem Employees”

It’s kind of an eerie label—“problem employee.” With supervisors it usually means, “I have someone working for me who isn’t with the program.”

Then what they often fail to admit is: “I don’t know what to do to turn him/her around.” 

So, what’s the problem? 

In most cases, the problem is around employee behavior—their approach, conduct, interpersonal relationships, and way of communicating. It’s that dreaded “soft stuff” that supervisors often feel helpless to address. 

I’m sure you’ve heard supervisors say things like: 

  • That guy/gal has a rotten attitude.
  • All I ever hear is complaining.
  • I’m sick of always being second-guessed.
  • S/he turns people off at my meetings.
  • No one wants to work with him/her. 

Typical supervisor reaction to these “problem employees” falls into four buckets: 

  • Call them out privately and/or publicly—taking potshots
  • Avoiding contact—hiding from them
  • Acquiescing to their wants—giving in
  • Bad-mouthing them to others–seeking sympathy

These actions change nothing, embolden the employee to continue their behavior, and cause the “good” employees to question their supervisor’s ability to lead. 

The fix: Take camera-less “snapshots” 

It’s not that supervisors don’t want to deal with problem employees: They often don’t know how and are fearful that what they’ll try may make matters worse. Because they don’t have steps to follow, they hope the situation will get better on its own. It won’t. 

To address employee behavior from an objective point of view, you have to start with a little self-directed pep talk scripted like this: 

  • The problem is NOT about me but about my employee’s behavior.
  • His/her behavior is a “problem” because it has a negative effect on my team.
  • The problem behavior can be changed if the employee wants to.
  • It’s the employee’s obligation to make those changes and mine to support their efforts as appropriate.
  • There will be consequences if the employee doesn’t make needed changes.
  • My goal is to help the employee and enable him/her to get on the right track. 

Here is a 10 step process to address the problem: 

  1. Get it clear in your head which specific behavior(s) concern you.
  2. Identify the situations where the employee’s behavior can be observed.
  3. Position yourself to observe the behavior personally: at a meeting, around coworker conversations, and in team settings.
  4. Listen and watch what takes place. Take a mental “snapshot” of the scene, capturing exact words said, tone of voice, reactions, body language, and impact.
  5. Write down these observed “facts,” including the date and a brief description of the situation. Repeat this process over about a two week period, noting patterns.
  6. Schedule a meeting with the “problem” employee. Affirm what is positive about his/her work and express your concern about the behaviors you are seeing.
  7. Illustrate your statements by describing the specifics of the situations you observed
  8. Ask the employee how s/he saw or interpreted the situation. Help him/her understand your perspective.
  9. Explain that you need him/her to make changes. Ask what s/he intends to do. Explain that you are there to support his/her efforts. Ask for a written plan.
  10. Schedule regular meetings to revisit his/her efforts, while continuing your own observations until there is clear evidence that the behavior has been corrected. 

Most employees will tell you that they had no idea they were having a negative affect and will be relieved to know that you are there to help them turn things around. There are a few who won’t change, so you may have to take steps to release them. Your written “snapshots” documentation can help provide needed justification. 

Polish up your lens 

Intervening when there’s a problem is a test of our caring. If people don’t know they’re messing up and we let them continue to do it, we fail them. When we look through our lens to create a picture for them, we provide the clarity they need to improve. What better gift is that! 

Have you dealt with a problem employee? What behavior was the problem? How did it get resolved? Thanks for commenting!