How to Deal With Problem Employees

Problem employees are middling performers with middling attitudes. Often, they do one or two things very well but are dreadful at others. Sometimes they are capable of doing almost any job in the company, but excel at nothing. Regardless, you know that the people in your company are its greatest asset. You want to treat your team fairly, respectfully and in keeping with your values. There is a process you can follow to improve an employee’s performance and assess whether they can remain a good fit for the role.

Hit the Reset Button

You can’t expect people to meet your expectations if they don’t know what those expectations are. A job description is the most efficient way to set expectations. If there isn’t one for the position, it needs to be created and if the current job description is inadequate to describe your organization’s needs, it must be updated. Use this tool to frame the conversation about performance, the means to the ends (duties) and the expected outcomes. Help your employee prioritize what is most important to be successful in the role.

Be Specific and Honest while Caring

Specificity and honesty are the only fair ways to deliver feedback. While the message may be uncomfortable to deliver, it is unfair and detrimental of a manager to be vague about what an employee is doing right, and where they are failing. After all, your job is to develop that employee. How do you avoid coming across as a jerk? Your intention must be clear in your mind, and to your employee. Come to them from a place of sincere caring and concern for their development. It will cause short term discomfort but set the stage for long term positive results.

Plan to Help

Develop an action plan for their development. You should have some idea of what will make them a stronger performer but maintain an open mind – they likely know their strengths better than you, and together you can create a specific, measurable, time bound, action oriented plan to take their performance to the next level. This may involve outside training or mentorship inside or outside of your organization.

Make a Decision

When you treat a problem employee using the approach described above, an employee will often naturally self-select out of a role and happily move on to a better fit. It happens more often than you think. Not everyone will do this though, even when nothing else is working. Inevitably, you’ll be asking yourself “But how do I know if I should fire them?” The answer: If you have done everything you feel you reasonably can to nurture your employee back to higher performance yet it hasn’t made a difference, it’s time to let go. It will be better for the organization, better for you, and most importantly, better for that employee to do work that they love and are good at – even if you can’t offer them that opportunity.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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