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Dealing with Problem Employees

Problem employees are an unavoidable part of the working world. We all have had to work for, work with or supervise a difficult employee. Although in many cases you inherit the problem worker, he or she is still your responsibility. It is so glib to say, “Let’s just get rid of the problem worker.” This is an unreasonable solution for many reasons.

I do not think that there is a clear definition of a problem employee. What is clear, however, is that these employees tend to affect the morale of the entire organization and make your life very difficult. Too often, the implicit assumption is that a replacement worker must be better; however, this is frequently not the case.

How would a manager make a decision on a piece of equipment that was causing a maintenance headache? Well before it was replaced, I guarantee you that a thorough analysis of the problem would be conducted, and possible alternatives for fixing the problem(s) would be evaluated. It is just good business to make sure that the problem cannot be corrected before a new asset is purchased. Yet, this same type of analysis is not done on employees who are having difficulties insurance news.

So many times I see employers letting staff go simply because they did not give the manager what they wanted. However, when I go back to the staff member and ask if they understood what was expected of them, the majority says, “No.” In these instances, management never attempted to work with them to see if it was possible to overcome the problem.

I think so many times the cost of replacing a worker is either unrealized or is perceived as small and inconsequential. There is no question in my mind that if you fully account for all of the time involved in hiring a replacement (i.e.: time spent advertising to find a new employee, interviewing candidates and training a new hire) and numerous other indirect expenses, the cost of replacing a worker amounts to at least 100 percent of the annual salary.

If the cost to replace a worker is so high, why do so many firms keep on doing this over and over? I think the answer is that many managers lack the skill set to deal with problematic employees or behaviors. For example, if you have a worker that has been coming in late to work, and you are disappointed because you believe you have made the company policy clear to everyone, maybe the issue is that you are not connecting with the employee, being clear about the expectations or there is something going on in their personal life that is influencing their behavior.

Changing behavior is especially difficult if it has been tolerated for a period of time. However, working to overcome an employee’s problem rather than seeking to hire a new worker will often pay off in the long run.

In looking to overcome behavioral issues, consider the root cause of the problem. For example, is there something in the company culture that is contributing to the problem behavior? In the case of the late employee, maybe you are being inconsistent about enforcing company policies. Are some people allowed to come in late due to personal circumstances that are not explained to the other employees? Are you holding people accountable, or do you let things slide?

Once you have determined the reason behind the behavior, there are many things that you can do to turn the situation around. Firstly, provide specific guidelines and processes to help clarify expectations. Secondly, ensure open communication with managers and employees to help resolve minor issues before they become serious problems.

A third possibility is the use of incentives, rewards and recognition as ways of reinforcing the change you are looking for. I have seen some managers simply start acknowledging positive changes in behaviors, and that has been the key to effecting the change. For example, with the habitually late worker, offer a kind word about the improvement the employee is showing by successfully arriving on time three days out of five.

The bottom line is that an employee’s problematic behavior should not necessarily mean termination. Rather, it should be thought of as an opportunity to turn this employee into a great employee.

Jerry Osteryoung is the Director of Outreach of the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Florida State University, the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship; and Professor of Finance. He was the founding Executive Director of the Jim Moran Institute and served in that position from 1995 through 2008. He can be reached by e-mail at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com or by phone at 850-644-3372.