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!

Rude, Difficult, or Insubordinate? | No More Employees Behaving Badly

“Supervising would be easy if there were no employees.” Well, at least, that’s the old joke! Most employees come to work ready and willing. Unfortunately, a few others come with negative baggage rooted in authority-figure, entitlement, or attention issues. Now the supervisor has his/her hands full.

Keep a watchful eye and well-tuned ear  

The worst thing a supervisor can do is miss the clues or dismiss negative actions. Bad behavior often starts small. You may just chalk it up to the employee “having a bad day.” But if you don’t intervene, it will likely escalate until you have a real mess on your hands.

No one likes to confront bad behavior, but if you don’t it’ll erode your credibility and the respect of your other employees. Failure to confront emboldens bad actors. It tells them that you’re weak, afraid, impotent, or stupid.

Anyone behaving badly at work has successfully behaved badly elsewhere. That mean’s they’ve had plenty of practice, know how and when to act out “safely,” and look forward to the rewards that go with it.

Those “rewards” may not be what you think. There can be great satisfaction in just watching you squirm, undermining you with other employees, getting a lighter workload, or the chance for a juicy lawsuit.

This is a kind of supervisor bullying! You have to disarm it fast!

Don’t wait. Act!

Consider the upside: When you intervene with a bad actor, you give that employee a chance to save his/her career, not a bad legacy for a supervisor! 

Bad behavior often starts with being rude or dismissive like:

  • Ignoring you or conveniently “forgetting what you said”
  • Failing to acknowledge a greeting or positive gesture
  • Taking their time responding to your voice or e-mail
  • Disregarding an assignment or disputing its due date
  • Being late or not showing up for meetings and/or appointments

These behaviors can be subtle and deceptive. There will be excuses, justifications, and debate about your interpretation of their actions. No matter.

Confront them privately and immediately. You are expected to uphold company performance standards and that includes appropriate employee behaviors.  Letting “little” things go will turn into bigger things.

Difficult behavior, on the other hand, disrupts the way your team operates. It may include:

  • Arguing with you or disputing work assignments and processes
  • Constantly questioning your decisions
  • Interfering with the work of others and stirring up negativity
  • Unwillingness to work with others and complaining about coworkers

You can protect yourself and, oddly enough, these employees, by having clear performance goals and behavioral standards in writing that you review with them formally and then informally when there are rough patches.

Explain to them that their disruptive behavior can cost them a poor appraisal, their raise, and potentially their job. Don’t accept any arguments. Follow through on what you say, no matter how unpleasant they get. If they quit or try to sue you, oh well! That’s why you have HR and legal resources. Don’t let your employees hold you hostage!

Insubordination—the last straw! 

The crowning glory for bad actors is getting away with blatant insubordination toward you, their supervisor, by:

  • Refusing to follow a direct work assignment/order
  • Calling you a name in front of other employees
  • Calling you a name privately, but afterward bragging about it to other employees

A lot of opportunities to address bad behavior have been missed by the time things get this far. Here is where termination or legal action is the next step, one that’s a lot more stressful and time-consuming for you than helping the employee to adopt the right behaviors early on.

Keeping ourselves in check! 

Our employees know how to push our buttons. However, our job is to listen and understand what’s motivating unwanted behavior and take action to defuse it constructively. It’s not for us to own the employee’s reasons for their actions but to help them change. Our business fitness is the well we go to during tough times. It’s how we sustain the courage to lead. Please do!

Have you witnessed an employee behaving badly? How did things turn out? Your insights will make a difference.