• "Consistently late."
  • "Passive aggressive with co-workers."
  • "Lacks discipline."
  • "Doesn't really get our culture."

When companies grow, you don't have to look far to find examples of the "problem employee". But as with most things, the truth is rarely as simple as it sounds - and like most workplace issues, "problem employees" aren't dealt with in a fair and productive way as often as they should be. (Which is every time.)

Managing is easy when your team is like you. Every so often, though, a hire challenges your management style, or they need more coaching than you might be willing to give. 

What to do?

 

1. Diagnose the problem

Ask questions of yourself and others. Is it that they're doing something wrong or that their approach is simply different?

If the former, how severe is the problem? In rare cases, it's appropriate to immediately bring in HR or even fire the person on the spot (e.g., if a person is violent towards another).

Fortunately, most of the time infractions are less serious and you can take some time to respond.

Gather examples, ask others about their experiences with the individual (if appropriate), and take good notes. This will keep you informed and organized, and create a paper-trail should you need one later.

Taking a moment for this initial due diligence is a courtesy to the individual and, perhaps most importantly, it keeps you honest. If you struggle to come up with examples of wrongs, ask yourself if you may simply dislike the person in question rather than have any legitimate grievance against them. If that's the case, end of article.

If not, read on...

 

2. Set up time to talk to the person

Of course, very minor issues may best be dealt with quickly and via email or chat ("hey, I noticed you were late to the meeting; everything OK?").

But persistent issues, more-serious issues, and anything more-notable than a minor isolated error should be dealt with in person and with a little notice. (If you can't meet in person, video/phone is fine.)

Give the person a heads-up. "Do you have 20 minutes later today or tomorrow morning for a quick post-mortem on the client meeting?" is far better than springing your feedback on them in the moment and demanding a quick response. 

A chief complaint of employees about managers is "feeling ambushed" when receiving hard feedback. Give them a little time and tell them directly what the meeting will be about.

Some may want to talk immediately - and that's fine, too - but at least give them the option of a little prep time.

 

3. Prepare to listen

Well-intentioned as you may have been, you've essentially built a case against this person - now it's their turn to respond. You don't have to agree with them, but you do have to listen

Open with a short summary of why you called the meeting, then quickly give them the floor. Take care to positive, open, and use a supportive tone.

If your approach is to tell them about what they did wrong, explain to them why it was a problem, and ask them not to do it again next time, be prepared to have the same meeting every week. You've crossed The Conversation off your to do list but haven't learned or solved a thing.

Here's a good opener:

Thanks for your time. I wanted to talk about the client meeting yesterday. There were 2-3 occasions when you interrupted. The client couldn’t talk, because you were jumping in to try to preempt what they were saying and they were getting frustrated. It happened in last week’s meeting too. Why do you think this is happening?

At this point, it's tempting for the manager to offer up their own theories to fill a silence - or to cut into the employee's air time to validate, correct, or register disagreement with what they're saying.

Don't.

Put yourself in their shoes. Give them the chance to be heard. You learn nothing when you're the only one talking. And they might surprise you - in the example above, the employee might have simply been rude - or the manager might go on to learn that they had had a massive argument with their partner before they left for work. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

 

4. Be solution-oriented - but not yet.

Once you've heard them out, ask them how they'd solve the problem. You may already know, but remember: people are more likely to do things they feel a sense of ownership - give them the chance to define their next steps.

You can offer guidance and correction, but let them drive.

 

5. Let them summarize

Noticing a pattern? Letting the employee "own" their behavior (past, present, and future) is a key differentiator in having your feedback land versus having the same feedback be ignored.

To close, prompt the person to summarize what they'll do differently going forward, and include a timeframe for the same. Better yet, have them email you a few bullet points.

 

Feedback conversations can be tough on both parties - but with good intentions and two-way dialogue, they can be a force for good.

And if your employee is a persistent offender or you as a manager can't find a way to work well with them, it might be time to call in a coach - for you, for them, or for both of you. Talk to us.