Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

From peer to supervisor – Part 11: employee problems and problem employees

Posted in HR and personnel, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on November 8, 2010

There may be an exception out there but in my experience few if any managers want to have to deal with workplace conflict, and certainly from disruptive employees. Suppliers do not always keep to the schedules they promise and goods and services received that you and your team count on may not actually meet your needs. Customers can be difficult. At times you can find yourself being assaulted with unexpected and late-arriving product requirements and demands, and even when you have really made an effort to get a buy-in and in writing from those customers as to what you will do for them and when. These and related issues are simply part of the job.

Having to deal with difficult and even disruptive team members and fellow employees can be a part of the job too. I add that this may be an early issue you have to deal with as a new manager, and certainly if one or more people on your team feel resentment that you got what they see as their job as team manager. So this is an important topic to cover in any series of postings that would offer advice and guidance to new and first time managers. No one wants to have to deal with this but eventually ever manager has to do so. And this can develop into an unavoidable part of the job as a first time manager from day one. So I look into this complex of issues here as installment 11 in this series. (For earlier postings in this series, please see the Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 105, 108, 110, 111 and 113-118.)

There are a number of books and a steady ongoing series of print and online articles available on dealing with disruptive and toxic co-workers. Many of them are very good and at the very least they all highlight the simple but important fact that if you find yourself facing this type of problem you are not alone. Some people do and will seek to avoid working on their parts of shared assignments, leaving it to others on the team to do both their own work and that of these shirkers. Some people systematically and repeatedly seek to claim all the credit and glory for every success, while denying any role or responsibility for any problems and even if they directly caused them. Gossip happens and it can be divisive and destructive. People can and at times do bring their personal lives and tensions and frustrations stemming from outside of work to work with them and that can mean workplace anger, depression and a lot more.

There are ways to address this, and some of the books and articles that delve into the details of working with difficult colleagues offer real insight; some simply offer verbal and behavioral slight-of-hand tricks for maneuvering around these problem peers, but even that can offer at least some value. That said, this is not the focus I would turn to in this posting. As a manager, your job is not just to find ways around disruptive team members, but to identify and resolve problems – and certainly where they adversely impact on team effectiveness and performance.

• This can mean identifying problem team members and the people who they are problems to, and working with them to resolve issues.
• This can be in knowing when you have to turn to others for support and help – as for example when behavior rises to a threshold where workplace harassment may be occurring.
• Depending on circumstance, with problematical behavior and results of effort to resolve them taken into account, this may lead to training, demotion or even dismissal.

But the problem employee is in effect a walking minefield for a manager too and certainly for a new manager. And effectively managing problem employee situations calls for a solid understanding of what is happening, and with a 360 degree due diligence.

What should you do when you find yourself managing an employee who has been there with the business long term and probably much longer than you, but who is abusive in behavior, damaging to morale and who has clearly been behaving the same way long term? These employees can be like third rails in that touching them can get you electrocuted, but at the same time the challenge they throw at you can be such as to call for something in the way of a response.

I have worked with people like this twice: once simply watching them in action as they worked their magic on a Finance department team that was physically located right next to my team, in an adjacent block of cubicles. This type of toxin can and does affect everyone within earshot. The other that I would cite here involved an employee who did, at least in principle report directly to me. And in this case some of his behavior probably did at least touch on the fringes of the illegal as action deleterious to the business itself – but this employee had a patron in the principle owner of that business.

Long term toxic employees who are simply allowed license that others would never be permitted always have patrons. When you find yourself dealing with a long term problem employee do your research to find out how long they have been with the organization and what they have done there and with whom. Find out who their patron is, and if you can why. Learn their history with the business. This is someone who has been acting the same way long term so you can probably wait in dealing with them in any way. And you need to be patient and careful in this situation if you are going to do anything other than simply challenge that patron and present yourself as an easily solved problem for them. I have seen this happen and have had to deal with it, and sometimes the only real answer is to organize and manage the rest of your team around the long term problem employee as much as possible, so as to limit their impact.

Another type of problem employee who really needs careful due diligence in dealing with is the good or even outstanding employee and team member who suddenly becomes a real problem.

• What has this team member suddenly started doing, and under what circumstances and with whom involved?
• What if anything may be going on in the workplace that could contribute to or cause this? As a very important example, even the best employees can suddenly become anything but if they are being subjected to workplace harassment or similarly toxic behavior themselves.
• Meet with the HR director to discuss this, or with a member of that department staff who holds responsibility for helping to clarify and understand workplace problems involving employee behavior. Make use of the less involved and more emotionally detached third party resources available to you to help to indentify, clarify and resolve where possible.
• This is a situation where advice from a trusted and discrete mentor can help too.

As a manager, your primary responsibility is productivity in bringing your team to accomplish its goals and priorities. That is what your supervisor demands of you and it is what you will be performance reviewed on, and on an ongoing basis. That does not, however, mean that you can simply manage and resolve any and every performance problem by fiat. First you have to understand what is happening and who is actually involved. You have to be patient, and at the very least you have to set any emotional response of your own aside. And you, in most cases, have to willing to negotiate to address legitimate concerns. And always keep the third party buffer of your HR department in mind and particularly where workplace or other harassment may be involved.

The next posting in this series is going to delve into trust and management. It is important to approach this topic with a 360 perspective as a manager and that is the approach I will be discussing.

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