Workplace Law


June 11, 2002

July 9, 2002

Dealing with difficult employees

It's the dream of almost any business owner to be able to run a business without employees. And why is this? Simply because no one enjoys dealing with unnecessary drama.

"If only people could be self-responsible, do their jobs and not create any drama" is a lament I've heard from hundreds of executives across the country.

As I've stated before, the first way to avoid dealing with difficult employees is to not hire them. (If you are interested in a White Paper I wrote on how to avoid poor hiring decisions, send an e-mail to the address below.)

The second reason we deal with difficult employees is because of the system they find themselves in. Dr. William Edwards Deming, the father of Total Quality Management, stated forcefully that nine out of 10 people want to do a good job every day. This means that when someone is not performing well, very often it is a systemic problem -- such as poor hiring or poor management skills.

For example, many times we will focus on a person's weaknesses and spend most of our time berating them for these weaknesses, when what we should be doing is focusing on and exploiting an employee's strengths.

So, lets assume we are dealing with that one person in 10 who has the necessary skills to do the job and who is being managed properly, but for some strange reason they still don't want to "give it." The greatest challenge we face under these circumstances is trying to get people to "own their problems." Unfortunately, far too many managers own employee's problems for them. This is a surefire road to burnout and resentment.

Here are some suggestions to follow when dealing with the difficult employee:

1. Focus on the conduct and not the person.

The second we start using phrases like "you should" or "you're not" or anything else that begins with "you," we are entering that person's emotional space and setting up fight-or-flight reactions.

For example: A subordinate shows up late (again). After you find yourself watching the clock for 20 minutes, he walks through the door and the first thing he is greeted with is, "I cannot believe you are late again." While you may be technically accurate (he is late again), hurling "you" at him causes a fight-or-flight response. You have crossed the emotional 50-yard line.

Underneath his breath, that employee will engage in flight (I'll show him, I just won't show up on time again tomorrow) or they'll fight (gathering evidence to prove that while they might be bad you are a heck of a lot worse).

It is much better to use "I" terms and then keep quiet. For example, it is better to say, "I expect employees to show up on time because we all depend on each other" and then be quiet. This is generally very difficult, but when you speak in "I" terms, it forces the employee to pick up the conversation and gives him the opportunity to take responsibility without subconscious overrides going on.

The fact is, while you may be responsible to that person you are not responsible for them. This is a fundamental distinction that many managers fail to understand. Because you have not invaded their emotional space you give them the emotional opportunity to be responsible for themselves. You are much more likely under those circumstances to get a response such as "I apologize. I'm having difficulty with X, Y, Z (child care, transportation, etc.). I appreciate the frustration it causes and I'll make sure to leave home earlier next time."

2. Discipline is about learning, not punishment.

The Latin derivative for the word discipline means, "to learn." Have you sufficiently educated the employee about the cost to you or your organization related to their improper conduct? For example, if your legal secretary shows up late and forces you away from doing your $200-an-hour billable work, does he or she understand the bottom-line impact? Ask him what he thinks the costs are of his absence. If he has laid out all of the costs you can think of, then great. If they haven't, ask some questions like, "Would you agree with me that ...?"

3. First reward the effort.

Before we can expect results we must reward the effort. Once the effort is firmly in place the results will follow. For example, when the employee does show up on time let them know how much you appreciate their effort and how you hope they continue. And they will.

4. Remember the three strikes rule.

Whether it's because of our penchant for sports analogies or otherwise, the basic rule in this country is three strikes and you are out. Meaning verbal warning, written warning and termination. Any attorney will tell you it is important to document, document and document these efforts.

Memorialize the fact you gave the verbal and the written warnings. What most managers don't understand is when you discipline someone and give him or her a warning, you still own his or her poor conduct. The monkey remains on your back.

One of the forms I created to deal with this problem is the "Employee Correction Form." Again, I will send you a copy if you simply e-mail me. This form is to be given along with any warning notice. It essentially requires the employee to acknowledge the inappropriate conduct, what they are going to do to become more responsible in light of that conduct, and what the consequences should be if they don't live up to their responsibility. If the employee does not acknowledge their responsibility when they turn in the form, kindly request that it be filled out again. Remember, you can have this entire conversation without employing the word "you" once.

Many of my clients have found that by using this form employees will very often be more onerous on themselves than you would be. The employee typically acknowledges there's a problem, designs a strategy for being responsible and puts forth a consequence which is heavier than anything you would have suggested. This way they not only "own" their conduct but the consequences for failure to live up to their responsibilities.

5. If they still don't "get it," liberate 'em.

As Jim Collins wrote in the book "Good to Great," there is simply no substitute for having the right person on every seat of the bus. Many times we hesitate to engage in a "termination" decision because we don't want to hurt the other person. Besides, even the word termination sounds like some kind of death sentence. So instead, I encourage clients to think in terms of "liberation." If an employee can't find joy in the daily effort and be responsible in the process, liberate them to another place where they can do so. Chances are they are still working for you because they fear change. Do them a favor and move the cheese for them.

What is the test for determining when it is time to "liberate" someone? Here it is: If they left of their own accord, you would be relieved instead of upset. If you would be relieved, and they are still there, the only reason you have not liberated them to date is because of your own concerns about doing them harm. This is an example of what I call the dark side of the "hero" role.

6. Lastly, liberate them with dignity.

There is no reason for you to create unnecessary drama during the exit procedure. Remember, we are all "good people" trying to do our best. Don't get trapped into taking their improprieties personally. Remember, the decision to liberate somebody is more about you than it is about them. It is about your high standards -- not their low ones.

One final note -- two ways to make sure that termination decisions are done properly is to follow a checklist approach and to have more than one person involved in the decision making. Both of these mechanisms act as a "check" on poor decision making.

Here's hoping the above makes one of the most difficult parts of being in management a little bit easier.

Phin is an attorney and the author of numerous books, workshops and HR tools. He can be reached at (800) 234-3304, or


June 11, 2002

July 9, 2002