What’s the number one mistake employers make regarding problem employees? They do nothing, and hope it will go away.
The problem is, of course, that it doesn’t go away by itself. The poor behaviors or performance continue, or get worse. Co-workers become angry and demoralized. Management looks weak. Actions are taken that just compound the problem, e.g., fearful of an employee’s anger, management gives the employee an assignment that everyone knows will end badly.
From a coaching perspective, management needs to answer several questions to get to a place of action. First, what are the barriers to taking action? Second, what can be done to overcome those barriers? And third, what is the proper framework for taking action once the decision to go forward has been made? The third question is one for HR or an employment attorney to answer. The former are discussed below.
What stops managers from doing what they know needs to be done – often for a very long time? Some of the reasons include: lack of support from higher up management, uneasiness with confrontation, fear of doing something illegal, sympathy for the problem employee, lack of time, or lack of knowledge on how to do it. All decent reasons. But ultimately, not good enough. And when the inevitable meltdown or explosion comes, these excuses will sound pretty lame.
So what can be done to overcome these barriers? The exact steps will depend on the specific situation, but certain generic advice is possible:
- Decide to make the time to address the problem. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey has a wonderful chapter on time management in which he writes that a common mistake many people make is they don’t make time for tasks that are important but not urgent. Dealing with a difficult employee is a classic example of this. So the first step is to realize that this is an important part of your job.
- Sit down and analyze exactly what the problem is, what has been done about it to date, what has led to inaction in the past, and what might be a good approach.
- Get the support you need from upper management and HR. A supervisor or manager cannot and should not take on something like this without guidance and support.
And finally, realize that it takes courage and leadership to take on certain unpleasant tasks. Take a deep breath, tell yourself you have those qualities, and just say now. It may not be easy, but it’s an opportunity for strength and growth. ~AS
I first heard the term “up-delegating” when a manager in an investigation told me that the complainant was skilled at up-delegating her work to the manager. The witness was using the term in its negative sense. It turns out that up-delegating (or delegating up) can be a necessary and positive step as well.
Up-delegating occurs when an employee delegates or tries to delegate work to someone higher in the organization, typically the employee’s boss. It’s a concept that’s worth understanding in both senses.
The good. So when might up-delegating be appropriate? Typically, it’s a good thing when the delegating employee is asking the boss to help with something that the employee cannot do without the boss’s help.
One example is when an employee is given responsibility for a project but lacks authority over some of the people assigned to work on the project. Such a situation can be a recipe for failure if some of the assigned team members are uncooperative. In this situation, the project leader would be wise to ask someone sufficiently high up to explicitly empower him or her with the needed additional authority. If this doesn’t work, the project leader could ask this person to communicate directly with the relevant team members about certain matters or work assignments.
The bad. Up-delegating is not appropriate when an employee is trying to get his or her boss to do the employee’s work. Typically, this occurs when the employee is afraid to take risks, lacks confidence, fears criticism, or lacks resources. Often the manager is part of the problem by allowing the up-delegation. The manager may like being needed, be avoiding his or her own work, or lack faith in the subordinate’s ability to do the task correctly. The result, however, is that the manager doesn’t get his or her own work done and the employee continues to have the same problems that led to up-delegating in the first place.
To address this problem, the manager first needs to name it. Then two people need coaching: the employee and the manager. The manager needs to ask him or herself: “What do I do (or not do) that encourages my staff to up-delegate?” The manager should then make the appropriate changes in his or her approach. The manager also needs to ask the employee: “What is stopping you from doing this yourself?” Follow up questions may include: “How can I help you do this on your own?” and “This seems to be a pattern. What can we do to help you do these tasks on your own?”
Have you had any good or bad experiences with up-delegating? ~AS
A while ago I was brought in to work with a team that was having difficulties. One of the big issues was one person – let’s call her Sheila. When I spoke to each team member individually I was told that Sheila is good at the technical parts of her job, but does not work well with others. She won’t help out (“too busy”) and shuts down any new ideas (“we’ve tried it before, it won’t work…”) and always seems negative. People told me they’d tried ignoring Sheila (she demanded to be noticed), being extra nice to her (it didn’t change her behavior) and even asking her what her problem is (“I don’t have one.”)
It turns out that Sheila, like the rest of us, does things she thinks are beneficial. When’s the last time someone told you they were being intentionally disruptive, wanted to destroy the team, or didn’t want to get the work done well? Most people are doing the best they can, and are doing what they believe is the best thing.
Do you remember when you were little and your mom told you to put yourself in your friend’s shoes when the two of you had a fight? That applies to adults, too. To understand Sheila, we need to put ourselves in her shoes. What’s important to her? What does she want? What are her values? What does she like? Once we have tentative answers to these questions we can then give her a reason, in line with what’s important to her, to work positively with the team. Is control important to her? Ask her to be in charge of something. Is information the key? Ask her to do some research that will further the team’s work. I suggested her colleagues answer this question: What’s in it for Sheila to be more positive and cooperative? When they did, and acted accordingly, Sheila became a more positive, cooperative team member.
Have you worked effectively with someone like Sheila? Tell us how you did it! ~ DS
A gay male employee complains: My co-worker and her husband lunch together every day, but it’s discriminatory that she doesn’t want me to discuss my same sex partner. The co-worker says: I’m a Christian and homosexuality is against my religion. I’m happy to interact with my gay co-worker, but don’t want to have to hear about his partner.
An African-American employee complains: My co-workers laugh and talk about me in their native language. This is harassment. The co-workers reply: When we use our language, we’re not talking about her; we’re just chatting and only do it when no one else is around. Our employer’s policy allows us to speak in our language and it would be discriminatory to stop us.
These are just two of the many scenarios in the life of a workplace investigator. Most are more mundane: Managers have terrible communication skills or play favorites. Poor performers blame bias rather than their job performance. Managers have anger problems. Perceptually challenged employees create havoc. People hate their jobs, but can’t find another that pays as well, so make trouble.
And now a new source of conflict is creating challenges in the workplace: generational diversity. The 62-79 year-old “Matures” (as consultant Karyl K. Innis calls them) have very different attitudes toward work than the 43-66 year-old Boomers, who in turn have different attitudes than the 28–42 year-old “Gen X’ers” or the under-28 “Gen Y’s.”
Is there an underlying reason for all this? Much of it is just human nature: people are complex, see the world through their own perceptual lens, have competing interests, have personality conflicts, lack the necessary competencies, offend and get offended. We live in a country where personal boundaries are often blurred, many have a sense of entitlement or victimhood, and television shows workplaces where there’s more talk of sex than work.
There’s another reason why employers end up having to hire investigators: They fail to prevent conflict through policies, training, and coaching. And then, when conflicts do arise, they fail to manage them in a timely manner. Proactively dealing with conflict may seem like a distraction, but it’s an essential part of risk management and running a productive, efficient business. ~AS