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Grasping the nettle

Managing people is one of the hardest jobs. Styles in management change and over time we’ve moved from a highly autocratic ‘tell’ style (as seen in last night’s entertaining programme Mr Selfridge) to a much more consultative approach. But managers still have a duty to ensure that employees know about the company’s standards and abide by them. It’s not always easy. Managing difficult employees comes with the turf.

In this blog I am looking at the types of problem conduct rooted in elective behaviour. There are many different forms: someone who is always cup half full and starts every other sentence “Yes, but ….” Constant negativity is draining and affects other employees. Other examples include inappropriate, argumentative or abusive language and behaviour toward colleagues, clients or suppliers; refusal to carry out duties; poor time keeping; poor quality work; excuses or refusing to be personally accountable for things going wrong; unappetising personal habits. The list goes on and on.

Why do employees behave badly? Humans are creatures of habit. People consciously or unconsciously repeat patterns of behaviour that have worked for them in the past. If you break the pattern so that the undesirable activity no longer gives the employee the outcome he formerly achieved, you can start to shape new and more helpful habits.

So how do we hone and develop our skills to handle situations of this type? To resolve issues connected with difficult staff, you need the Three Ps - patience, persistence and diligent adherence to a process.

The starting point is to be clear what your organisation’s standards are. Standards may originate externally (for instance, legal requirements, third party business partner requirements, industry norms) or internally. They penetrate to every part of an organisation’s activities, and it’s the role of the manager to communicate, monitor and enforce them. It can be helpful to capture some of the key standards in writing, set out in precise and measureable terms.

It never hurts to remind ourselves that prevention is always better and far less painful than cure, so try to design your selection processes so that you do not recruit a problem in the first instance.

What do you do if a difficult employee slips through the recruitment net and is appointed? Identify that there problem and take action quickly to research, contain and resolve it. Exercise some sensitivity and commonsense. All employees – even the best - will have an off-day from time to time. If you treat everyone in exactly the same way it may backfire. Evaluate each case on its own facts

The goal here is to develop a solution, not to "win". You are a concerned colleague who is interested in collaborating with the employee to try to resolve the issues. Investigate courteously, objectively and in private. Talk about the facts, give detailed examples with times and dates, recognise and give credit for what the employee does well. I find Mahatma Ghandi’s remark about hating the sin, but loving the sinner very helpful when I’m tackling this type of problem. It removes any element of personal attack, but places undesirable conduct firmly in the frame.

Generally, the process will start with an informal but noted conversation. Allow the employee to respond to your concerns. The more temperate and factual you are, the more difficult it is for the employee to refuse to accept your version of events. But some employees can be highly resistant and refuse to believe you despite the evidence. In these cases, you will have to give guidance that there is a problem and you want to work constructively with the employee to help and support him, so that he meets the organisation’s requirements in all particulars.

Try to find out what the basis of the problem is. Ask probing questions and listen carefully to the responses. Don’t suggest answers or otherwise interrupt. Stay calm and remain non-judgmental. Summarise regularly; this helps to ensure you’ve correctly understood what the employee has told you and it also tells the employee he’s been properly heard.

When the employee starts to grasp that what he’s doing is unacceptable, is causing damage guide, coach and mentor the employee into an avenue of more acceptable behaviours. It may well take some time and you may have to invest in specialist support or training. Provide feedback to the employee to help him minimise actions which are undesirable and encourage him to adopt preferred behaviours whenever possible.

If the employee flatly denies there’s a problem, and refuses to do what he can to improve the situation, explain that while you want him to be happy and successful in the organisation, you can only achieve so much alone. He has to meet you half way, and that starts with an acceptance of the organisation’s standards. It is for the organisation to determine its standards, even if the employee disagrees with some aspects. If he cannot or will not take such steps as he reasonably can to improve, you will have little option but to explore matters through the formal discipline process.

A final word …. don’t over react. One swallow doesn’t make a summer. By this I mean that employees spend a lot of time together and they may have traits which get on others’ (and your) nerves. This is not necessarily the same as being “difficult”. A manager who tries to eradicate every personality trait that he finds to be mildly unpleasant will alienate the entire workforce. But when attitudes or behaviour get to the stage that it has a negative effect on others, you have to take steps to remedy matters.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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