Problem Employees

Have you ever dealt with that one employee who seems to exist for the sole purpose of giving HR and management one big headache? These are problem employees and they are everywhere. No organization is exempt from their disruptive behavior or their negative effect on the morale of the remainder of the workforce. At best, they may simply be time eaters who keep you from being as productive as you’d like. At worst, they can be a threat to the stability of your work environment.

Identify the problem

Problem employees comprise a very small portion of the workforce, yet they still manage to consume a disproportionate amount of HR and management time and attention. Not to be confused with employees who simply have a question, need help with a procedure, or even those who question the status quo in an effort to improve, problem employees ask questions you’d rather not answer, have more conflicts than ten other employees, and often challenge not only policies, but authority in general.

Very few employees set out to be a problem for their employers and those that do usually reveal themselves quickly. They tend to be disgruntled, suspicious, and apathetic employees and, generally, they have chronic attendance issues, performance issues, and disciplinary issues. And, thanks to the proliferation of employment and labor law information available via the Internet, they know just enough to effectively work the system to their advantage—particularly when it comes to state or federally mandated benefits such as workers’ compensation and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Manage the risk

Employee lawsuits have reached an all-time high and are still rising. Managing problem employees in the face of our increasingly litigious society is one of human resources' most serious challenges. Avoiding litigation is a powerful motivator, but retaining an underperformer for fear of litigation isn’t the answer. More often than not, your best bet is to tackle the problem of problem employees head on. The following steps will help you face the challenge.

  1. Establish a strong attendance policy with levels of disciplinary measures that address increasing absenteeism and tardiness appropriately.
  2. Implement a performance management and review system that rewards excellence and uses strategies to improve employee performance.
  3. Set up a disciplinary process that includes formal notices such as: verbal warning, first report in writing, and second/final report in writing.
  4. Train your supervisors to deal effectively with problems that do arise and not to wait until the issues get out of hand.

Additionally, effective hiring and interviewing techniques and valid job descriptions provide the foundation for preventing problem employees from infecting your workplace. They help the management team know what to look for in new employees and provide applicants, as well as current employees, with information regarding the requirements of the position.

Be proactive

One of the best ways to neutralize problem employees is to take an objective look at your employee handbook, policies, and practices. Amend any policies that are outdated, unfair, or open the door to litigation. While you’re at it, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do we comply with all legally mandated employee benefits and requirements?
  • Do we clearly communicate expectations for employee behavior and job performance?
  • Do we provide a safe and secure work environment?
  • Are we respectful and considerate of our employees?
  • Do we listen to our employees’ concerns and address them in a responsible and effective manner?
  • Do we have a formal complaint process?
  • Do we conduct thorough investigations into issues as they arise?
  • Are our pay practices for each position in line with the position, the community, and our industry?
  • Do we reward excellence?

Document, document, document

When these strategies fail and termination is the only option, the accuracy of your documentation can mean the difference between time in the courtroom and a good, clean break from a poor employee. Especially important are your performance evaluations and any disciplinary memos. If you’re in doubt about your documentation, conduct an audit of your personnel files to make sure only appropriate information is included.

In conclusion

Like most issues, problem employees also provide an opportunity to improve your own policies and practices. Often, they give you the information needed to make your organization a better workplace for all of your employees.