IT Employment

Five tips for working with a troubled employee

An employee who's grappling with problems can affect the productivity and morale of your entire team. Brien Posey suggests a few ways to help employees who are having a rough time.

One of the most difficult tasks for any manager is trying to turn around an employee who's having problems. The process can be made even more difficult by the seemingly endless corporate bureaucracy and legal red tape. So what is a manager to do? Here are five tips that may help.

1: Be empathetic

Over the years, I have known several managers who were interested only in keeping their bosses happy. While I certainly don't dispute the need for pleasing upper management, it can be taken to the extreme. For example, I once worked in technical support for a data entry warehouse. The employees who did the data entry were under constant scrutiny. If their hourly keystroke count began decreasing, the manager in charge would immediately begin building a case against them so that he could eventually fire the slow employees and replace them with faster typists.

Even though it is important to make sure that your employees get the job done, I have always tried to be empathetic. The way that I see it, employees spend at least a third of their time at the office, so it's inevitable that sometimes life's circumstances will interfere with job performance. Employees may occasionally get ill or have to deal with stressful situations, such as a divorce, death of a family member, or financial problems.

Rather than immediately writing employees up for having a bad day or a bad week, I have found that it is better to talk with them. If you can find out what's been bothering them, you may be able to do something to help to resolve the situation. I once had an issue with one of my employees that I was able to resolve simply by rearranging his schedule a bit. It was a simple solution, but it made a huge difference for the employee.

Of course, this approach will work only if the employee trusts you -- and for that you need to be genuinely empathetic and concerned with the employee's well-being.

2: Don't wait too long

One of the worst things you can do when an employee is having problems is to wait too long to address them. Sometimes, things will get better on their own. But more often than not, a problem will be easier to correct if you address it before it worsens.

3: Negotiate an action plan and follow up with the employee

As you discuss the performance problems with an employee, you should do more than just listen. Your ultimate goal is to get the employee to start performing at an acceptable level, so you need to come up with a plan of action.

Just having a plan isn't enough, though. Sometimes, a plan may not be realistic, or unforeseen circumstances may cause the plan to fail. It would be unfortunate to have to get rid of an employee just because your plan didn't work. Therefore, I recommend involving the troubled employee in creating the plan and meeting with the employee on a weekly basis to evaluate the plan's progress and to make any necessary adjustments. Having this level of involvement can be time consuming, but the result will usually be worth the effort.

4: Be clear about your expectations and give regular feedback

When I worked in the corporate world, I always worked hard and legitimately tried my best to do a good job. Imagine my surprise when one of my supervisors once took disciplinary action because of my poor performance. In the end, it turned out that there really wasn't a problem with my work, and I was able to prove that the supervisor had a personal vendetta against me. But if I there had been a problem, I would have been in the dark about it, because my supervisor never give me any feedback.

Your troubled employees may not even realize they're doing a bad job. You must therefore be clear about your expectations and meet with your staff on a regular basis to let them know how they are doing. Otherwise, employees are likely to assume that everything is going well.

5: Watch for telltale warning signs

I firmly believe in giving an employee every chance to succeed, but the sad reality is that some people can't be helped. For instance, an employee may become too strung out on drugs to do his or her job. Likewise, if an employee becomes a danger to your other employees, it is time for them to go.

So how do you know when things are getting to that point? Even though I can't really give you a specific answer, there are some signs to look for. You should certainly be concerned if an employee:

  • Suddenly starts wearing long sleeves on hot days (to cover up needle marks).
  • Returns from lunch late, smelling of alcohol.
  • Exhibits sudden, extreme mood changes.
  • Threatens violence or shows a preoccupation with violence or weapons.
  • Steals from the company or from coworkers.
  • Borrows money from coworkers.
  • Stalks coworkers.

Additional resources

Turning around a problem employee

Don't discipline entire staff for mistakes of one person

10 ways to deal with an unhappy employee

6 (bad) reasons managers avoid personnel issues

How to handle the difficult genius

Tips for managers who want to avoid lawsuits


About

Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

12 comments
aaalvh
aaalvh

my point of vew is that HR must be in the loop. Twice we got poblems and twice we used external coachs, not so expensive balancing the costs. In a quarter the first significant changes were done to fix the gaps.

JamesRL
JamesRL

If an employee threatens violence or steals from the company or coworkers it isn't time for a heart to heart, its time for termination.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

f'ed up. Troubled, is marriage breakdown, because you are always at work. External domestic problems. Financial problems because they are on crap wages. Stress and Anxiety through underload and overload. or favouritism, scapegoating, being poor at cya when they have an "it was him" manager. Barely a mention, imagine my surprise.... Tony exhibits mood swings. Tony is a baghead Hide my wallet, donlt lend him any money Yeah great action plan.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Really - that is a tell tale sign? Come on - just because a person is wearing a long sleeved top?

jkameleon
jkameleon

- Returns from lunch late, smelling of alcohol. - Threatens violence or shows a preoccupation with violence or weapons. - Steals from the company or from coworkers. - Borrows money from coworkers. - Stalks coworkers. Around here, the above is a grounds for defenestration, not just termination.

Ed.Pilling
Ed.Pilling

Long sleeves to cover needle marks is so old school. Typically people who start off with very addictive drugs usually start by snorting them. Most people would notice a change in behavior. If a person is main lineing so to speak they have reached the bottom. You would see a very stark change in behavior and wouldn?t have to see needle tracks. The majority of addicted drug addicts do not use their arms because they know people will see the marks. Any radical shift in mood from morning to afternoon could be a tip off that the person is doing drugs during lunch. Every company I have been in has required a drug test and I signed statement that I will take a random drug test if asked.

JamesRL
JamesRL

We have some offices where the AC is overwhelming, even more so in the hottest days of summer. Some people wear sweaters in the office.

Tommy S.
Tommy S.

Our AC is an old PoS and has no regulation whatsoever. So when its ON the temp can go down to around 17?C. I tend to hang around in the server room because it is much warmer. I have yet to see someone hiding heroin marks at work, or anywhere else for that matter.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

as well. Got in the habit when tats equalled lowlife.

GSG
GSG

to cover some surgery scars. Yes, they are small, and barely noticeable, but they bother me, so I wear sleeves that are longer than what would be considered normal. I guess the point is if the person used to wear short sleeves, and if nothing else had changed, suddenly starts wearing long sleeves.

TSaL
TSaL

I ware Long Sleeves to cover my tattoos :)all summer long :(

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

once. Cold air right down the back of the neck. Hoodie in the office. :p