Tech & Work

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


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.

Editor's Picks