Is Firing Bad Employees the Only Answer? Tips for Managing Difficult Staff Members

To Fire...Or Not To Fire?

Firing a bad employee can seem like a no-brainer. When a difficult employee is not doing the job, you as manager fire the staff member. But the decision to fire is not always so simple.

Recognize the all-important distinction between a bad employee and a difficult employee. Employees who complain...employees who come in late...employees who steal...who gossip...who abuse sick time...who spend all day cruising the Web...and let's not forget the super-annoying employees with a total lack of social skills....in fact, all employees who cause the climate of the working environment to deteriorate...they differ in important ways.

Some are unequivocably bad staff, and they need to go. Period. In some cases, though, the staff member may not be going against company policy, doing anything wrong or illegal, or being anything other than hard to work with. The lowering effect he or she has on employee morale or on productivity may be significant but not due to their being a, quote-unquote, bad employee.

When employees are not bad enough to fire but are bad enough to hinder the effectiveness of your working environment, what do you do?

As a former supervisor, I learned several strategies for dealing with difficult employees. Here are some tips for managing those difficult staff members who don't fall into neat categories. One disclaimer--your organization's particular policy trumps this advice every time.

How to Handle Difficult Staff as a Manager

Figure out what makes the employee difficult and take the appropriate action based on this. Is the employee:

  • Difficult for anyone to get along with--i.e., a chronic complainer, or possessed of an abrasive personality that rubs everyone the wrong way? Complaining or abrasiveness can be a passive-aggressive attempt to change an environment due to dissatisfaction on any of several grounds. Meet with the staff member to resolve why they are dissatisfied.
  • Difficult for just one or two people to get along with? Personality conflicts and personal tensions are often, but not always, at work. Take any accusations of harassment or illegal activities seriously. In other cases, use conflict resolution strategies.
  • Failing to do their "fair share" of the work? Often a perception that a person isn't producing as much as another employee is based on casual observation and reflects differing work styles. If the employee really isn't producing the minimum needed, then see the next point. Otherwise, if the staff member simply is "working to the beat of a different drummer," consider whether in your organization it's possible to relax your requirement that everyone use equivalent work styles. Consider also the balance of work as a whole--does this person produce the least, yet contribute to team cohesiveness in other ways?
  • Failing to do the minimum work required (quantity or quality)? Take appropriate steps to inform the employee he or she is not working up to the minimum standards. This can be grounds for firing.
  • Coming in late and causing productivity or scheduling problems as a result? Take appropriate steps to inform the employee he or she is not working up to required standards. Try to help the employee find resources to solve any problems with coming in late. This can be grounds for firing.
  • Coming in late and setting a bad example? If the employee is coming in late, but not disrupting the work environment directly, only indirectly, then meet with the staff member to find out what the problem is--a lifestyle change? A temporary circumstance?--and find out whether or not it can be resolved by a change in scheduling.
  • Talking constantly and disrupting the productive environment? In most cases, but not all, depending upon the job, a certain amount of socializing helps maintain a healthy working environment. Assess whether or not the employee's talking or gossiping is lowering productivity or constitutes true offensiveness or harrassment. If so, take appropriate steps to inform the employee that he or she needs to improve in this area.
  • Talking frequently and annoying people but not causing lower productivity, harrassing anyone, or being truly offensive? Relax possibly unrealistically stringent requirements and/or use conflict resolution strategies.
  • Nagging others to do a better job? Some employees can be so good at their jobs, their involvement with trying to micromanage others becomes a problem. Talk with the employee to establish whether perhaps he or she is not challenged enough in his or her own job.
  • Hostility, or rebelling outright against authority or instructions? Find out from the employee whether the source of the hostility is work-related. Take appropriate steps to inform the employee that improvement is needed.
  • Failing to follow instructions but not with a rebellious attitude? Meet with employee to determine the problem and consider possible solutions. The root of the problem could be anything from an intruding life event to a drug problem to a hearing problem to a language problem to a problem of mental illness. In many cases, the organization offers resources available to help employees with personal problems infringing on their working success.
  • Failing to respond to feedback requesting improvement or to negative performance reviews? If you've followed all appropriate steps to giving the employee a chance to improve, this could be grounds for firing.

Note: In all cases, the safety of the work environment is the first priority. If you have reason to suspect the employee may become violent or is doing something illegal, take the appropriate measures as per your organization's guidelines. This may mean bypassing the usual attempt at conflict resolution or other strategies normally used in cases of difficult staff.

Tips on Making the Most of an Employee Evaluation

In evaluating an employee's performance for a review or evaluation, be cautious about:

  • Using hearsay or anecdotal evidence offered by other employees. In many cases when employees bring an issue to management, the issue involves matters of conflict, grudges, or personal bias, and no one person can be said to be "at fault."
  • Ignoring feedback from other employees altogether. Despite the pitfalls, realize that employees work with each other and can offer valuable feedback. Listen, then take it with a grain of salt.
  • Assuming the existence of a pattern from an isolated incident, even if you were witness to it. The problem you witnessed may have been a one-off. In some cases, such as stealing from an employer, once is definitely enough. In other situations - say, an employee exhibits a bad mood one day out of the year - the situation is less likely to be a problem worth taking less drastic action over.
  • Looking for problems simply to find something to put on a performance review. A truly difficult employee either goes against organizational or departmental policy, does something illegal, lowers productivity or hinders a positive working environment in some way. Lack of charm or an abrasive personality does not necessarily a bad employee make. Unless your organization's guidelines say so, don't evaluate against perfection; evaluate according to criteria important for the running of your department.
  • Letting your own prejudice or personal feelings determine your evaluation. Every manager tries to stay objective, but it's impossible. As human beings, our personal opinions are always weighing in. Be aware of this influence. If you're feeling upset, are battling a bad digestion, or simply don't like the employee, wait until a time that you can consider all factors more objectively.

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