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Difficult Employees

OPERATIONALLY DEFINING “SOFT-SKILL” EXPECTATIONS

Hopefully, the job descriptions for your employees offer clear task expectations. This is an area that many leaders get right–listing specific objectives that are measurable and can be updated at performance reviews. Often, leaders forget to similarly provide clear and measurable objectives on the “soft skills”–being a team player, arriving to work on time, accepting and giving appropriate feedback or communicating in a positive manner with others. It definitely takes extra creativity and effort to make soft skills measurable. The problem with not operationalizing and measuring the soft skill expectations is that it leaves no clear path for the reprimand and remediation (or firing) process.  Leaders resort to “I’ll have to talk to her again”–which let’s face it, if the first 3 “talks” didn’t work, the next one will be equally ineffective.

SUGGESTIONS FOR MAKING SOFT SKILLS MEASURABLE

Use a 360 mode of obtaining feedback from peers, subordinates, and supervisors. Likert scale ratings (0-5) provide the quantification that is necessary for tracking progress or lack thereof. The process can be presented as an implementation to maximize each person’s professional growth and to ensure a positive working atmosphere. People may be initially uncomfortable, so an honest but positive explanation will go a long way in creating buy-in. Items that might be addressed on a 360 feedback include the degree to which a person unnecessarily interrupts others, if they make positive and supportive statements during team collaboration, how often they directly resolve concerns with relevant people instead of gossiping to others, and if they take initiative with new tasks. The surveys should be tailored specifically to what you want from the employees and leaders in your organization.

Set boundaries to flexibility. If you want to maintain a flexible work environment but find that some employees take advantage, reel them in instead of punishing everyone else with stricter expectations. For example, if you want people to have the flexibility to leave early for personal appointments, let them know the upper bounds of what is acceptable (i.e. 2 times each month). Put the expectation in writing and have people shoot out a quick email that they will be leaving early. The dedicated workers who do not take advantage of perks will be really grateful to maintain the perks AND to see that their lazier colleagues are held accountable. This strategy can apply to flexibility in working hours, the policy on personal phone calls and breaks, unpaid leave requests, and any other area where you want to create a flexible but responsible atmosphere. Always remember the power of social pressure. In group settings, praise employees who handle the flexibility responsibly to create the tone that responsibility is rewarded.

Set up a system for tracking problems and use it consistently. If you have a warning system for all of the hard skills, it is necessary to have one for the soft skills as well. It may be the same system or a different one. It is necessary to use it and follow-through in order for everyone to take it seriously. DO NOT fall into the trap of making excuses for employees. Just build in enough flexibility and a system for extenuating circumstances, so that the genuine problems that are left are obviously outside of the expectations and are reprimanded accordingly. Remember, only 1 verbal reprimand and then you need a set of written reprimands and consequences to be in place.

COMMON EMPLOYEE DILEMMAS

THE CHRONICALLY LATE MILLENIAL

"I have a young woman that works for me who is about twenty-five years old. She works in my social media department and is really good at engaging with customers of my business. My issue is that she comes in late or calls in sick. I have talked to her about the need to be able to count on her work and why she comes late. She complains of trouble sleeping. She is well known for her interest in interactive online gaming and other employees in the company say she stays up very late playing these online games. I could let her go, but many candidates that fit this skillset are very young as well and other business owners are telling me that this is just the millennial generation. Any thoughts on how to deal with her?"
STRATEGY: I sincerely doubt that all people in the millenial generation call in sick and are late to work. The problem with excusing the behavior based on age is that it creates morale issues for other millenials AND for the rest of the workforce who are responsible. If you want to allow her and others some flexibility, provide a range of allowable sick days per month without a doctors excuse. Also, you can provide flexibility surrounding the arrival time FOR EVERYONE. 'We know that life happens, and you can be X minutes late, Y times per month.' Outside of those limits on both sick time and lateness, you are looking at a consequence structure. It may be that you decrease wages by a certain amount, reduce other perks, or do a written reprimand. Everything should be documented. Training dogs, cats and people requires rewards and consequences, not conversation. Once you've had one verbal warning (make sure it is documented), it is time to move on to the next steps. You are focused on keeping this employee, but I think you are under-estimating how damaging it is to the other employees if you continue to excuse her behavior.

THE UNMOTIVATED EMPLOYEE

My best sales producer was a superstar for the first four years he worked for me. In the last year, his production has really slacked off. I have sent him to sales seminars and even paid for a professional coach to work with him. My sales guy says the market is changing and that is why his sales have dwindled, but I have not seen that in other salespeople’s performance or in the market. He is responsible for a few key accounts, so his loss could have a negative effect on my business. How do I get him re-enthused and to start working harder?
First, do you have minimum sales goals? Has he fallen from "super-star" status to "average" or is he below the acceptable line of productivity? If he is still doing as well as his peers (but just less than he is capable), you might just have an employee who wants to coast for awhile. The only way to resolve that is to change the compensation structure to make a higher level of productivity more attractive. Alternately, if he is falling below what is acceptable, you will have to go to a written plan of action that sets clear expectations, consequences, and a time frame for remediation. Here's the thing. As an owner, you are not responsible for the "why's" of his behavior. You need him to do the job. Financial compensation may not be enough to motivate him. He may be depressed, bored, or having personal difficulties. Some people have personality types such that they are really good at starting strong when they are excited or want to prove themselves. As soon as the initial challenge and novelty are past, they lose interest. These people have a habit of starting well and finishing poorly. The superstar becomes a black hole. If this is the case, nothing is going to reel him back in unless you have a completely different job available for him. Make sure that he is clear on your expections. Then mourn his super-start status and follow through as you would with any of your other employees. Those who are working hard will respect your fairness and your willingness to hold him accountable.

THE TOXIC EMPLOYEE

I have an employee who is toxic. She gossips, tries to turn people against each other, and thrives on drama. She does her job adequately, so I have no grounds to reprimand her based on her work. My employees are uncomfortable around her, but everyone is scared to say anything because she is so nasty. Even some of the supervisors are intimidated by her.
First, you are dealing with crazy. No amount of logic is going to fix it. This employee is a cancer and needs to be dealt with accordingly. 1. If you have an HR department, pull them into the picture and get all of the information you need on the protocol that needs to be in place to fire her and how you can best protect yourself. If she is part of the HR department, consult with an outside company. 2. Be stronger than her. "Call her out" in front of other employees. You can be as straightforward or as subtle as you want. Ex. Straightforward approach = "Before we end the meeting today....Carla, I know that you have a tendency to voice your opposition to ideas after meetings. Is there anything you would like to say before we close?" Ex. Subtle approach = Have an inservice to help employees learn assertiveness. Do role plays and have Carla in the role of the antagonist with the employees practicing their assertive techniques on her. 3. Praise positivity and group collaboration. In any group with Carla present, praise the others for being team players, a positive asset etc. Use their names individually. Make sure that they receive attention and do not give any to Carla. This will make her angry at first, but the trick is for you to not respond to her and to teach the other employees how to refrain from responding. Drama NEEDS to be fed. The way you suffocate it is to give it negative consequences or no attention. Ex: Carla: "Did you hear what happened to Mike? Responder: "No, and I really don't care." Close the door to the conversation. All of your employees could benefit from learning how to shut down negative people, so teaching them the skills will be helpful far beyond this employee. Letting them know that you see the problem and are willing to address it will also boost morale and nurture a positive culture. REFRAIN from making generalized statements that are intended for her, and everyone knows it. This approach shows a lack of courage on your part and will be frustrating to the other employees. REFRAIN from assuming that silence will make the problem go away. If she is a bully, the only way to win is to shut her down.

THE “I’M SCARED OF YOU” EMPLOYEE

I have an employee who has worked for me for ten years. She is one of the most talented, smart and conscientious employees who have ever worked for me. She is willing to stay late, come early, work weekends and be available to help the business. She sounds perfect, right? But here is the problem: she is scared of me, her boss. If I call her or ask her to step into my office, the first words out of her mouth are “what have I done wrong?” She tells others in the company that I am mad at her or that she is in trouble with me when the only thing she does that makes me upset is to think I am mad at her or that she is in trouble. I have asked her what I am doing to make her think I am angry with her and her response has been “nothing.” I have had an outside coach (thinking this would provide her some safety) ask her what makes her think I am mad at her and her response remains the same. I don’t know what else to do. She is a critical part of my company, but her fear of me seems to spread to others which I learn of when I meet with other employees in my company and often the conversation ends with them saying something along the lines of “this was really fun, there wasn’t any reason for me to be scared.” I don’t want this one fearful employee to affect my entire company culture. Please help!"
Dr. Tricia goes outside the box. Bring her brownies. People usually thing I am joking. Here's the rationale. All relationships, at home and at work, follow a script of anticipated behavior. Doing something outside of the norm breaks the pattern. It interrupts the dance of action-reaction. "Mary, I'm going to bring you brownies for every time you don't ask me what you've done wrong." Then do it. A more traditional approach....May be combined with brownies. First, this problem may occur more frequently with female bosses. Successful women have learned to be direct in their speech and manner, but that approach is still counter-cultural such that subordinates may interpret the directness as meanness. There's not an easy fix for it, but it's always good to be aware of gender and cultural factors that affect communication. What strikes me about this employee is that she may either be truly lacking in self-confidence or use her fear-mongering for extra attention. Regardless of her intentions, avoid continued attention to her negativity. Here's the protocol: 1.) Ask ONE TIME what is contributing to the fear or if you can do anything to help assuage it (sounds like you already tried this approach). 2.) Confront instead of soothe. "Mary, I respect and value you. When you ask me each time what you've done wrong, I find it frustrating because I do my best to point out both successes and mistakes." **NOTE: Make sure that you have called Mary into the office for praise as well. If you've only initiated contact when she has made mistakes, her assumption that she has done something wrong is a logical one. If your first several interactions with her were critical, she may have an expectation that you will always be critical. 3.) Whenever possible, in meetings and emails, praise the people who have a great attitude about collaborating with you. "This week, I called Becky into my office to discuss the B project, and she was fantastic in sharing her ideas. I know that I'm your supervisor and it can be intimidating, but I really appreciated her engagement with me and willingness to bring her perspective to the table." You want to build a culture that praises courage and positive attitudes. As a result, fearful and anxious conversations will be discredited. 4.) If you know with certainty that Mary has spoken about you being "scary" to others, it needs to be confronted. She may have her own baggage related to authority figures. If that is the case, nothing you do will make a difference. However, if she is scared of getting in trouble, use that fear to quarantine her negativity. "Mary, I'm sorry that you are scared of me. Please let me know if you have any solutions. In the meantime, I need you to stop passing on your fear of meeting with me to other people." Make this an objective that can be followed up on at a performance review. Notice that none of the above suggestions past #1, focused on soothing Mary. Anxiety, fear, nastiness and other negative emotions will thrive if they are fed. Continued attention feeds it. After an initial attempt to make her feel better, let go of the responsibility to prove that you are not scary. Trust the rest of your employees to see what is real.

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