Problem Employees

Jan 22, 1996

I thought about a headline for this week’s treatise along the lines of “Second guessers, naysayers, and negative thinkers,” or “No more excuses,” or “Let’s cut the crap.” But I decided that none of these really deals with all that I want to talk about— that being problem employees. I used to be a lot more hard-line when it came to casting aside problem employees. There are three reasons why I’ve “softened”— it’s getting harder and harder for firms to find the people they need; you get more patient with age (unfortunately, “patience” may be synonymous with “complacence,”); and sometimes you can change behavior, if you really deal straight with the employee. Regardless of why I am not as tough and demanding as I used to be, just about every firm I visit has employees that the owners and managers consider “problems.” In fact, shortly after I finished this article, we received a flyer promoting a seminar entitled “How to Fire for Attitude.” (See page 3 for details). Here are some common types of problem employees, and how I might respond to them: The “Always Has a Problem” Employee: These people always have some “crisis” that is hurting their ability to do their job. Whether it’s the secretary whose car won’t start and can’t get to work on time, the engineer who is depressed and needs an advance on his pay because he can’t live within his budget, or the business development person whose cows are coming down with some strange disease that requires him to stay on his farm for the next week, it all comes down to the same thing— they’re letting something outside of work affect them at work. And it’s all unacceptable. My responses would be: “Get a better car,” “Cut back on your expenses,” and “Decide what you want to be— an environmental firm marketer or a farmer.” The “Always Has an Excuse” Employee: Have you ever heard, “I can’t get my jobs out on time because the drafting pool won’t do my work,” “My laptop doesn’t have enough RAM,” or “I sent the client a request for information three weeks ago and they haven’t responded”? This type of employee is looking for justification for failure, instead of trying to work around the obstacle. I’d say: “Let’s meet with the head of drafting now to figure out what’s happening,” “Stay late at the office for a change instead of going home at 5:15 p.m. every night, and use one of our 21 workstations that has 32 megs of RAM,” and “Get on the phone and call the client daily if you have to.” The “There’s Only So Much Time in the Day” Employee: This type of employee never seems to get anything done because they are so overloaded. When you confront them on their lack of action, or lousy quality output, they snap back at you: “I’m already working seven days a week— do you want to change the calendar so there’s eight?” There are some folks who say this once a year— and they may be justified when they say it. I’ve always believed that work flows to the competent person. But there are some employees who will say this to you every week. œ These people are a problem. I might say: “Get organized so you can get more done in less time,” “Learn to delegate— no one will ever be able to do any of your work unless you give them a chance to learn how to do it,” or “Cut back to a 50-hour work week and maybe you’ll get more done in less time.” The “After-the-Fact, it Should have Been Done Differently” Employee: Also known as “Monday Morning Quarterbacks,” these folks are always quick to tell you what you should have done after a problem crops up. The problem with this employee-type is that they never seem to have any ideas on the front-end of the situation. I’d say: “From now on, we’ll let you deal with these situations and we’ll see how well you do,” or “Why didn’t you voice your opinion when we were deciding what we were going to do about the _________ problem?” The “It’ll Never Work” Employee: This type of employee is opposed to any change that is proposed, and he or she will tell you every reason in the world why whatever it is you want to do will fail. They think that this is what smart people do. B.S.! There’s nothing that angers an entrepreneurial manager more than negative thinking. I’m not sure I know any particularly effective way to deal with this type of problem employee other than pure, old-fashioned verbal confrontation. My response would certainly be different for a principal-level employee than it would for someone who is part of the rank and file. For the principal, I’d probably explain in no uncertain terms that “while we want them to be able to express themselves on anything, we don’t need their negative thinking.” For the lower level employee, I’d probably explain that “No one would ever start an A/E/P or environmental consulting business with that type of attitude, or no firm could succeed.” The “It’s Not Like it Used to Be Around Here” Employee: I hate to hear these words come out of an employee’s mouth. It makes me cringe! However, my response is always the same: “Of course it’s not, and no firm is the same as it was X years ago. You can’t stay the same and have the world change around you, and hope to remain in business. It just doesn’t work that way.” The bottom line is that if you are a manager responsible for supervising people, you can’t just ignore your duty when you witness unhealthy behavior or attitudes. Sure confronting people is a pain, but sometimes it feels good. Confront, confront, and confront. You might even surprise yourself with the results you get. Originally published 1/22/1996

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