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Dealing With a Problem Employee? Two must-do’s to prepare for your meeting

By Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP

(607 words)

If you’re a manager or supervisor, sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with a problem employee. You know the one – s/he misses deadlines, presents substandard work, is frequently tardy or absent, uses the phone excessively for personal calls, complains constantly, or has a tendency to be a know-it-all.

The secret hope is always that the problem employee will miraculously transform overnight. But more often than not, unless actively managed, performance problems usually get worse. And if the rest of your team doesn’t think you’re dealing with the performance issue, then morale and productivity amongst your competent employees will decline. But taking action can be a daunting task. Here are two things that you can do to prepare and thus reduce your anxiety.

Evaluate the Problem
Be very clear as to whether the employee’s shortcoming is performance-, behavior-, or attitude-based. There is a significant difference between the three.

Performance problems have to do with the employee’s inability to complete job responsibilities. Missing deadlines, an inability to take on new tasks, doing shoddy or sloppy work, and creating bottlenecks are all examples of performance problems. Contrast these with problems that have to do with behavior. Taking frequent or extended breaks, engaging in conflicts with others, gossiping, or being insubordinate are all examples of behavior issues. Attitude problems take behavior issues to a greater level of ambiguity. Employees who display negativity, have a tendency to be know-it-alls, complain, or are contemptuous toward their work, clients, management, or the organization fall into this category.

If you are dealing with an attitude problem, you must convert it into a performance or behavioral problem before you can take action on it.

For example, as frustrating as an employee’s negative attitude may be, you cannot take the employee to task for being negative. Addressing the issue in terms of a negativity problem cannot create a positive outcome. First, your comments are open to interpretation and discussion. Chances are your employee perceives him or herself as realistic as opposed to negative. Second, when you address the issue in terms of attitude, your employee has no understanding of what needs to be done to fix the problem. So you must convert it to a performance or behavior problem.

Consider saying something such as, “When a team member offers a suggestion in a meeting and you immediately jump in with a reason why it won’t work, it shuts down the exchange of ideas and others are less likely to offer alternatives. I’d like you to let others completely express their ideas before you present your concerns about what could go wrong.”

With this approach, you are describing your employee’s specific behavior (jumping in with a reason why it won’t work) so there is less room for debate. And you’re giving the person clear information about how to fix the problem.

Articulate the Solution
You must be able to articulate what you want your employee to do differently. This sounds really obvious, but if you can’t put into words what you want them to do, how can you expect them to take action?

To help you articulate what you want, answer the following three questions:
• What result do you expect from your employee?
• What result are you getting now?
• What is the difference?

It’s worth your while to write out the answers to these questions; simply thinking about them will not help you put into words what you need to communicate. The answer to the third question will fall out of the first two, and it is this third answer that will spell out the changes and improvements you are asking your employee to make.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP, turns managers into leaders by giving them specific and practical how-to steps to create high-performing, productive, and positive workplaces. Contact her at or (403) 605-4756.

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