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Dealing With Problem Employees

Filed under Managing the Workplace. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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Dealing with problem employees requires that you choose a course of action as to whether you discipline the employee or coach the employee through constructive feedback. Depending on the severity of the problem, a combination of the two may be the most effective approach.

Employers must deal with employees who are poor performers or who violate work rules or engage in some other type of misconduct, by taking action, usually of a disciplinary nature. Before you actually take disciplinary action, you should run through the following list of questions:

  • Did the employee have advance notice of the rule and the possible or probable disciplinary consequences of breaking the rule?
  • Is the rule reasonably related to the orderly, efficient, and safe operation of the business?
  • Does the rule require conduct that might be reasonably expected of an employee?
  • Has an effort been made to determine whether the employee actually engaged in conduct that violated the rule?
  • Was the investigation of the conduct fair and objective? Did the investigation include an effort to get the employee's version of events?
  • Did the investigation find substantial facts that show that the employee acted improperly?
  • Has the rule in question been applied to all employees in a similar manner?
  • Did the investigation reveal any facts that might justify or excuse the conduct?

If after going through these questions discipline still seems appropriate, you should then proceed with the process. Be sure that the steps you follow are the most appropriate for the problem, since different discipline methods should be employed depending on the problem.

Generally, you can choose one of two courses of action in dealing with the employee. You can:

  • Coach the employee (a preferable course of action for a minor offense, a first-time, nonserious offense, or a work performance problem).
  • Discipline the employee (this is more appropriate for serious offenses, frequent offenders, and problems involving the willful disregard of a company policy or rule).

On the whole, coaching is more desirable because it focuses on changing the behavior and retaining the employee. However, there are times when you want to penalize or punish an employee, and discipline is necessary in those instances. It's important understand the difference so that you can make an informed choice about your course of action.

When Coaching Is the Appropriate Action

Disciplining an employee who has engaged in improper conduct should be different from dealing with an employee who is not performing work duties well. In fact, most business people prefer to refer to the latter as coaching, rather than discipline.

In a situation where there are performance problems, employees may not be willfully doing something that violates your policies and may just need some guidance. Some performance problems may even be the result of morale problems.

Effective coaching and giving constructive feedback can be difficult and challenging, but have their advantages:

  • Employees learn more about their jobs and perform better.
  • Employees develop a sense of loyalty toward you and the business.
  • Working conditions are improved.
  • Productivity is enhanced and maximized.

So, what characteristics make one a a good coach? The characteristics of a good coach are that he or she is:

  • confident in the abilities of individuals
  • enthusiastic
  • caring
  • supportive
  • goal-oriented
  • knowledgeable
  • a good communicator
  • patient
  • responsive
  • an excellent listener

Mutual respect, support, and trust. The coaching process has certain perspectives and behaviors that can be duplicated in the workplace. They are:

  • Mutual respect. Both you and your employees must accept the mutual dependence each has on the other in order for each of you to succeed. From that relationship, respect can grow based on the contributions of each party.
  • Supportive environment. Where there is respect, it follows that the working environment will be supportive. The opposite is true where there is distrust or conflict.
  • Trust. Where there is fear, there can be no trust. The workplace must encourage an atmosphere of trust, which includes candor and an acceptance of an initial level of failure.

Coaching should be goal-oriented. In order to counsel employees, you must focus your attention on the goals that you are trying to get the employee to achieve. Those goals may be to increase profits, increase market share, create new products, reduce error rates, or achieve other business-related objectives. In order for employees to know how their work can contribute to the goal, they must be taught:

  • what the goal is
  • how it is achieved
  • what part their work plays in reaching the goal

As the coach, the responsibilities you must fulfill are to:

  • set clear expectations
  • set performance standards
  • measure performance
  • correct deviations from performance standards
  • make it clear that you are on the same side as the employee
  • provide guidance while preserving the employee's self-esteem

Once you have an understanding of the philosophy of coaching an employee, you're ready to move on to the actual steps involved in coaching an employee.

Employee Coaching and Constructive Feedback

Once you've mastered the mindset of the coach, you're ready to try the exercise of coaching an employee with a performance problem. A coaching session to improve poor performance might contain the following steps:

  • Express the performance standards for the job and review past performance of the employee. Explain why it is important to the business for the employee to perform well.
  • Describe the areas of performance that the employee must improve. As best as possible, describe desired performance in terms of results that are to be achieved. Explain what happens to the department or the company when the employee does not perform well. Describe what good performance looks like, providing concrete examples of good work, if possible. The process of constructive feedback is helpful here.
  • Ask for the person's view on why performance does not meet standards. Does the employee believe there is a problem?
  • Discuss possible solutions. What does the person propose to do to solve the problem? Have the employee develop steps to solve the problem to create a sense of ownership in the solution. Suspend the session if the employee needs more time to develop a plan. If the employee cannot develop a plan, develop one for the employee.
  • Agree to a written action plan containing specific goals and timetables for meeting those goals.
  • Have the employee orally commit to the action plan and provide the employee with a copy of the plan. Retain another copy as documentation of the meeting.
  • Follow up on performance based on the goals stated in the action plan. Provide feedback on how the employee is doing. Offer suggestions to improve performance. Praise instances where performance has improved.
Tip

Coaching to improve poor performance is often the first step of the progressive discipline process. If the employee does not improve performance, however, explain that you may be required to take more severe discipline steps.

Constructive Feedback

Most coaching and counseling methods call for techniques to give and receive information. One of the most effective techniques is called "constructive feedback."

Constructive feedback is a conversation with an employee about something that he or she has not done well. You need to get the facts and then you can provide direction to resolve the problem.

Giving successful feedback requires that you:

  • have explicit, clear expectations of what should occur
  • know exactly what behavior and performance occurred and what must be done to resolve or improve the situation
  • have honest, candid, and direct face-to-face communication
  • know why the business requires a change in behavior
  • know how you will monitor the work situation to ensure that the behavior change occurs

Here's a checklist to help you plan for giving constructive feedback:

  • Do your homework - have personal knowledge of the reason to have the conversation. Allegations and rumors are not enough. Research until you have personally verified what the facts are and that you feel that action is necessary.
  • Know the person you will be speaking with well enough to predict what his or her responses will be.
  • Practice what you are going to say and in what sequence.
  • Know your own communication style, how you are perceived, and how you will react in the event of a challenge or emotional outburst.
  • Pick the location and ensure privacy.
  • Only in a true emergency should you act without thorough planning.
Tools to Use

Because planning is so important, you'll want to have some notes with you when you give an employee constructive feedback. We've prepared a 10-step dialog for you in the Business Tools to follow when you're face-to-face with the employee.

This document takes you through the process of coaching and giving constructive feedback. We've given you a few opening lines and cues to help keep the conversation flowing naturally.

Constructive Feedback Pitfalls

There are some pitfalls to be avoided in making your constructive feedback as meaningful and effective as possible. Watch out for them! Some employment atmospheres are not open, and lack of candor inhibits true communication, especially about difficult issues. Remember, too, that criticism hurts. Avoid the following pitfalls to make your constructive feedback most effective:

  • Procrastination makes the situation worse. Behavior in the workplace does not often change and a problem usually gets worse. Waiting until a situation is desperate is unfair, wasteful, and counterproductive.
  • Conversation may seem artificial. Initially it may seem artificial to follow a script. However, failure to act has more dangerous consequences than the perception that it is difficult to give constructive feedback. Try to be as conversational and natural as possible, but don't make it your primary focus - you're there to change behavior.
  • Timing the conversation is tricky. Constant, regular communication is the ideal, and it is true that immediate feedback is most effective. But do not initiate any conversation if your own emotional state affects your objectivity or knowledge of the situation. Since the purpose of the conversation is to change behavior, both parties must be receptive. Avoid feedback conversations when it is particularly busy, if privacy cannot be guaranteed, when either party is tired or upset, or if it's too late for the conversation to have a meaningful impact.
  • Criticism seems personal and mean-spirited. Attacking the individual is beyond the scope of a business conversation. Besides that, it almost guarantees that the desired behavior change will not occur permanently and leaves you open to legitimate criticism. Still, you must address problems caused by someone's performance. Never criticize the individual, but rather focus on the actual behavior.
  • Anger and defensive behavior are unpleasant, especially when directed at you. When challenged, the best strategy is respectful and active listening. Let the other person vent. As difficult as it may be to have employees verbally attack you, the process of getting it off their chest may actually help them be less resistant to change and, by listening carefully, you may learn something that you need to know.
  • Failing to ask the right questions can be costly. For the constructive feedback to be effective, it must be comprehensive. You must probe to get all of the facts and the perceptions. Plan ahead to ensure that you cover all of the issues. Having a list in front of you will help especially if you are sidetracked by the conversation that occurs.
  • Having hidden agendas is destructive. Honest and open dialogue does not allow for either party to play games or use the situation to further another purpose.
  • Taking things too personally and losing your objectivity can be harmful. You may feel personally betrayed. If you experience this type of emotion, it's best to resolve those issues first before confronting the other party about work-related issues.
  • Avoiding your personal opinion is a good idea. These conversations must be business-based to be appropriate.
  • Trying to do too much in one meeting is not a good idea. Focus on one issue at a time. Addressing many concerns may overwhelm the employee and may be too much to adequately address and resolve in one conversation.
  • Failing to plan and rehearse can be costly. You can practice and learn to give feedback well. You must practice to improve your skill level until the complex process of putting together all of this material becomes second nature.
  • Failing to document the conversation and your actions is not a good idea. Since there is always the possibility that the conversation may be misconstrued or may form the basis for disciplinary action at a point in the future, you must document that it occurred. Additionally, the documentation makes it easier to follow up in an organized manner.

What happens if you try coaching to improve poor performance but it is unsuccessful or if you have an employee who engaged in misconduct? You may be required to take some sort of other disciplinary action.

Basic Disciplinary Steps To Take

You can use the following steps as a guide to imposing an oral or written warning or suspension on the employee:

  • Inform the employee that he or she has engaged in specific conduct that is unacceptable and that certain conduct is expected of the employee. Refer to the specific rule or policy.
  • Explain that the improper conduct must stop.
  • Discuss the negative consequences that will occur if the employee fails to change unacceptable behavior and the possible positive consequences of changing the improper behavior.
  • Explore the reasons for the unacceptable behavior.
  • Develop an action plan that you and the employee agree on to change the unacceptable behavior.
  • Document the disciplinary process.

Documenting Disciplinary Actions

After you've investigated the situations and dealt with the employee, you need to document the entire process starting with the complaint or incident and ending with the final resolution or action taken.

Therefore, whether you are coaching an employee for a performance problem or disciplining an employee for improper conduct, you must document your reasons for discipline, any fact-finding that you do, and the actions that you take.

There are several compelling reasons for keeping good documentation:

  • Documentation is critical when you need to substantiate your actions to others. In the event that a disciplinary action is questioned, documentation will be the key to supporting that action.
  • Documentation will protect the business in the event that you or someone else is no longer available to testify.
  • Memory alone will not be substantial enough to support a decision when grievances, unemployment hearings and wrongful termination suits arise.
  • Documentation will help to support your position that you did or did not do something.
  • Documentation provides verification that employees heard and understood the information presented.
  • Sometimes, what you remember as a formal warning may be viewed by the employee as a friendly reminder. Documentation can show whether there were any mitigating circumstances and whether you followed your business's procedures.

Methods To Use For Documenting Disciplinary Actions

There are two common methods that you can use to document disciplinary actions: summaries and fill-in forms.

Using summaries for documentation. Summaries are good for instances where behavior is being tracked over an extended period of time. If you're using summaries to document discipline, be sure to include specific examples and information in your summaries to illustrate the problem.

Be sure to include the following information:

  • Provide specific background information - of employee's name, job title, date of hire, etc.
  • The date on which the disciplinary document is created.
  • Describe the offense and why it is an offense. Include the names of any witnesses, when and where the offense occurred, and any other critical details. Attach duplicates of relevant documents such as time sheets or production records.
  • Describe any disciplinary action that was taken or will be taken as a result of the offense.
  • Describe and recap any prior oral conversations or disciplinary actions that have bearing on the incident being documented.
  • Describe the behavior expected from the employee.
  • Provide for and include the employee's version of the events.
  • If the employee has any appeal rights, specify the procedure to exercise those rights.
  • Clearly specify the future action to occur if the offensive behavior does not cease.
  • Sign the form and give the employee an opportunity to sign the document. Note if the employee refuses but was given the opportunity.
  • Have a space to print (or type) your name and the employee's name.

If the situation is more of a coaching situation than discipline for improper conduct, balance the document by reflecting the positive aspects of an employee's performance as well as performance problems. But don't be afraid to state or document the problems.

Using fill-in forms for documentation. You may be able to save time by using a fill-in form. These are better for the one-time incident. They also help to standardize your documentation to the greatest extent possible. They can help to ensure that all disciplinary actions are analyzed, carried out, and documented consistently.

Other documentation. You can also consider having witnesses (if applicable) provide you with a written statement. Witnesses can be fellow workers, customers, or bystanders. Getting as much information from as many different perspectives as possible can help you make the best decision about disciplinary action. Documenting that information can help you defend that action.

You may choose to combine these methods, depending on your needs.

Tools to Use

The Business Tools contain a disciplinary action form that you can tailor for use in your business.

Documentation should include the employee's signature. Documentation should allow for employee comments and signature. That way:

  • If the employee makes comments about changing or rectifying the behavior, you have documentation that the employee understood and accepted the discipline.
  • If the employee disagrees with the action, you have documentation that you participated in this process with the employee. Allow the employee to record his or her disagreement on the form, but also try to work with the employee to come to an understanding. Document that process as well.
  • What if the employee refuses to sign the document? If the employee refuses to sign the document, you at least have proof that the employee refused to participate in the process should the employee later challenge your actions. Write a notation on the document that the employee refused to sign.

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