Tips on Managing Difficult Employees

From the moment you hire your first employee, you know it’s just a matter of time before you are going to find yourself dealing with a difficult employee issue. Here are some tips around what to do when you sense it all beginning to go wrong.

Published Categorised as Managing People
2012-07-29 - Tips of Managing Difficult Employees - Lighter HR
2012-07-29 - Tips of Managing Difficult Employees - Lighter HR

When You Sense there’s a Situation Developing…

As a business owner, you make sure that your business is managed well and legally compliant by putting all of the necessary employee policies in place.  However, from the moment you hire your first employee, you know it’s just a matter of time before you are going to find yourself dealing with a difficult employee issue, be it dealing with poor performance, frequent short-term absence or a grievance with another employee or the company.  Wouldn’t it be better to deal with the situation before it gets to the point where you need to reach for the policies?

Action taken as soon as a problem surfaces can often mean that your disciplinary and grievance policies can remain unused.  Here are some tips around what to do when you sense it all beginning to go wrong.  Many of the suggestions can also be implemented as preventative measures and remember that prevention is better than cure!

1. Dealing with Poor Performance

Poor performance can be caused by many different factors.  When performance issues arise you should:

  • Make sure the employee is clear what is expected of them.
    • It can be useful to have a simple job description which sets out the overall responsibility of each position in the business and gives a high-level overview of the day-to-day tasks that the employee is expected to undertake.  This doesn’t need to run to pages but this type of document can be useful both in terms of preventing poor performance by ensuring that employees understand what is expected of them from day one as well as managing employees when they join you.
  • Set targets.
    • Clearly defined targets can have an enormous impact on performance.  Many individuals rise to the challenge of achieving a target and take a great deal of satisfaction in exceeding it.
  • Talk to the employee.
    • Employees don’t tend to go from being good at their role to underperforming without there being some underlying cause.  As soon as you notice a change, talk to the employee.  This can help you identify the reasons for the decline in performance and this reminder that their performance is monitored, noticed and matters can often be enough to get them back on track.

2. Dealing with Frequent Short-term Absences

This type of absence can be the most damaging to businesses.  It’s impossible to plan for and puts strain on those employees who do regularly arrive for work.  Absence management can also be a bit of minefield given the need to ensure that the absence is not related to a condition covered by disability discrimination legislation.  Some steps that you can take when absence is an issue are:

  • Keep records.
    • By asking employees to complete Self Certification Sick Forms on their return to work you will have a detailed record of the absence taken and the reasons.
  • Conduct “Return to Work” interviews.
    • These meetings can be a useful way of businesses identifying underlying issues as soon as possible.  This should be built into your absence policy so that individuals know and expect this.  The meeting gives the business an opportunity to understand whether there are issues in the workplace that are impacting on the employee.  It also gives the business an opportunity to understand whether there is an underlying medical condition that is causing the absence.  They can also act as a deterrent for those who are actually suffering from ’Mondaymorningitus’!  Understanding the reason behind the absence means that the business can look to find a solution more effectively.
  • Seek advice.
    • As mentioned, absence management can be a difficult area as businesses do need to ensure that they are not likely to run into issues with discrimination legislation.  When absence is an issue, it is worthwhile seeking support from either an HR professional or employment lawyer sooner rather than later.

3. Dealing with an Employee Grievance

There’s a lot written about how to deal with situations where the business has a problem with an employee but a lot less about what you should do when an employee has an issue with the business.  These situations can be very disruptive in the work place.  Like an unhappy customer, an unhappy employee will often tell anyone who’ll listen about their issue.  Like an unhappy customer, if you deal with the situation quickly and effectively, you can end up with an advocate.  Some suggested steps are:

  • Be proactive.
    • If you’re aware of grumblings coming from a particular employee then ask to speak with them.  It is important to be non-confrontational and to encourage them to tell you what their issue is and explore solutions with them.
  • Listen and don’t defend.
    • It can be hard to have your business or management criticised but it’s important that you don’t fall into the trap of becoming defensive.  Listen with an open mind and react in a calm way.
  • Coach and guide the employee.
    • Sometimes the grievance can relate to professional relationships between colleagues and it can feel a little like being back in the school playground as you have to listen to “He said this” and “She said that”.  In these situations the most important thing is to try and calm emotions.  You can suggest facilitated discussions to get both parties talking or just talk to the aggrieved party about different ways of dealing with the situation.

4. General Practices for Dealing with Employee Issues

There is one over-riding principle when dealing with any type of employee issue which is don’t ignore the problem. It can be very tempting to try an ‘Ostrich Approach’ in the first instance by pretending that the situation either doesn’t exist or will resolve itself.

There really are no ’Employee Problem Fairies’ and small problems have a nasty habit of developing into bigger problems if they aren’t addressed.  Open and honest communication at all times can play a significant part in ensuring that problems don’t exacerbate.

One final point to note, if you are ever unsure as to how to deal with a situation please get some help.  There are a number of sources of support to business owners and the earlier in a situation you seek help the easier it will be.

Whomever you choose to help you make sure you are completely honest with them regarding the situation and the actions you have taken.  They really can only help if you tell them all of the facts.

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