How to deal with difficult staff

May 15, 2015 Uli Aschenbrenner No Comments

Every one of us, regardless of whether we grew up in the same family, have a different perspective on life. We value different things, we have different experiences and we interpret things in different ways.

Differences can be beneficial in many ways. You get a different perspective, a different way to solve a problem, or an appreciation for something you never really considered. The problem is when those differences are stretched beyond the limits of a cohesive team.

It’s not always immediate to identify, but within a few weeks difficult staff start to harass others, are grouchy, impolite, condescending, self-centred and dismissive.They can turn up late, leave early and half-heartedly complete tasks. All of this doesn’t just affect the bottom line of your business in wages, it also affects the rest of your staff and customers.

You may think that it’s easier to fire the person than it is to deal with them, but there are a few steps you should take before it gets to this point.

Step 1: Assess the situation

Every business goes through tough times. Staff can be overloaded, stressed and under appreciated, and in many cases this can lead to outbursts of bad behaviour. It’s understandable when the circumstances are pressured, but when it becomes a regular occurrence, it’s less likely to be a result of circumstances, and more likely to be a result of the staff personality or coping mechanisms.

When you’re in this position, it can seem easier to just ignore the problem, and hope it will sort itself out (or that the staff becomes more self-reflective). But the reality is that it typically leads to a progressive problem, affecting your staff and customers.

It’s important to properly understand the issues and intervene early, in a professional manner (more on that later). If you have complaints from other staff, speak to them privately, and make sure you record and date the occurrences, with evidence to support their claims against the difficult staff.

Ask them how they think the situation would be best handled, and why they think this situation has occurred. This can help give you a different perspective and understand the seriousness of the complaint.

Step 2: Assess the value of the difficult staff

While it may be tricky to see for certain roles, having clear (and reasonable) KPI’s help to ensure you and your staff are clear on their role, their objectives, their outcomes, and the behaviour in which they need to conduct themselves in.

It gives you both an agreed standpoint at which you can assess their performance. If you can, it’s best to do this when your staff starts their new role, through a clear induction process. While certainly possible, it’s much easier to set a precedent from day one, rather than trying to adapt it down the track.

Once you have KPI’s in place, assess how much value the staff adds to the company, through their output, their responsibilities, creativity, innovation, problem solving, and any other areas that are important to their role.

If they’re not meeting their KPI’s, this is a good point to sit down with them and discuss things through, as well as decide on your path of action as a manager.

Step 3: Assess your business’s position

In addition to assessing the %employee’s% performance, it’s also important to think about the stage your business is in, and what impacts it would have on your business to deliver it’s outcomes if you were to fire the person.

  • Will you lose customers?
  • Will other staff become overloaded?
  • Are they managing multiple key areas of the business?

If the person is a bad fit for the company, and is causing more harm than they’re worth, then it’s important to remove them from the company. You just need to be aware of the consequences it will play on the rest of your team, the company and your customers.

Step 4: Intervene as early as possible

Once you have a clear picture of the situation, it’s important that you intervene early to avoid the behaviour escalating.

Whether it’s arisen due to the %employee’s% lack of knowledge, feedback or reaction, it’s ultimately the managers responsibility to correct the issue. Don’t expect that staff will sort it out between themselves.

Many staff will avoid confrontation with the offending person, as it can be a difficult dynamic to deal with, and doing so may lead to further complications, rather than resolution. The problem this creates however, is that for quieter people, these scenarios are rarely forgotten and stack upon one another forming a bigger problem down the track. This can lead to staff disputes, poor morale and ultimately resignations of good staff, to avoid having to deal with their co-workers.

If a situation arises, it’s important to nip it in the bud, by discussing it with both the offender and victim. By holding half-hour monthly one-on-one performance meetings, you’ll have the opportunity to have a comfortable environment to bring things up on a regular basis, and talk things through.

Step 5: Discuss the issue

Before discussing the issue, it’s important to understand how the offending staff is feeling about their role. Their behaviour may be a reflection of problems they’re having or feeling a lack of recognition or appreciation.

Once you have an understanding of their situation, ask the individual whether they are aware of any issues surrounding them. In some cases, people don’t mean to do the wrong thing, they are simply unaware that they are offending, or underperforming.

If they’re unaware, you need to explain the situation and let them know why it’s unacceptable behaviour. Doing this in a calm, considered approach, with your focus on trying to understand how the person is feeling, will give you the best outcome.

In some circumstances, the difficult staff may reject the raised issues. Ask why they feel this way, and if the reasons seem in conflict with discussions with other staff or company guidelines, then they may have problems accepting their behaviour and trying to rectify it.

If they acknowledge their behaviour, ask them what they think would be an appropriate solution for it, before suggesting one of your own. This helps them to take ownership of the problem and accept it as something they need to change.

Step 6: Help the problematic staff to get on track

With sincere encouragement and coaching most staff can excel far beyond their previous capabilities. Giving them something to work towards, painting a picture for them (figuratively) and coaching them through the process will make them feel like they have support, and the change is positive.

The staff will take some time to adapt, as they “try on” the new behaviour. This is an important time to give feedback via encouragement and outlining what they can improve on. Don’t criticise.

Step 7: If all else fails, cut ties

If the staff continues to deny their behaviour or doesn’t improve, it’s time to consider terminating them.

During this time, there needs to be documented history of their behaviour and written feedback. Company protocol should be to give the staff a trial period in order to address their behaviour, with feedback from their manager.

If no changes occur, then they need to be terminated. Remember that most people want to do the right thing and will attempt to correct their behaviour (especially if they’re employed during tougher economic times and unemployment is high).

In any case, it’s important for managers to handle all of the above professionally for the benefit of the staff, other staff (as they’ll take note of how it’s handled) and the company as a whole.

Understanding the situation clearly, discussing, offering feedback and input on how to resolve the situation in a timely manner will ensure the problem is either resolved (often creating a stronger bond in the team if done successfully), or swiftly dealt with to give space for a new staff.

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