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Drama Management–Dealing With Problem Employees
by Heather Bussing
Everyone’s been there. An employee is reprimanded for some performance problem. She gets defensive and complains to everyone about being treated unfairly. People take sides. Someone suggests she file a grievance, or write a letter to management disputing the write-up.
A week later, more time is being spent on the drama than doing the work. Emotions are high. Lawyers are consulted. Everyone feels threatened and uncomfortable. How should the company handle it?
The challenge is to make it better without making it worse. Here are the options I suggest:
Do Nothing. Doing nothing is one of the most sensible and underused options around. Fires need fuel. Without it, they die out.
There is also the 2.7 Second Rule. People will think about other people’s drama for 2.7 seconds before going back to thinking about themselves. So it doesn’t take long for people to lose interest when nothing more is happening.
When the line forms in front of your office and your email box is filling with the latest slights, explanations, apologies and rants, thank each person for keeping you in the loop. Then make it clear you are not interested in doing anything to anyone at this point, and just want everyone to relax and get back to work.
If things are not better in a few days, then reevaluate. This may just be the surface issue.
Aikido Moves. In Aikido, the goal is to defend yourself without injuring the opponent — often by making a counterintuitive move. Step closer instead of step back. Do something nice instead of issuing further edicts and reprimands.
Sometimes ordering pizza for lunch, or giving people coffee gift cards and an extra half hour to use them, can diffuse tensions. I have also brought in massage therapists to give a chair massages, sent people out for pedicures, written prescriptions for a good book, and distributed chocolate. Really good chocolate has magical properties that I do not understand but absolutely believe in.
Figure Out What is Really Going On. Often the “problem” is not really the problem. It’s just a symptom of something else. Sometimes there are things going on in an employee’s personal life that are leaking into work. Sometimes the problem has deeper roots at work — an unreasonable manager, too many changes too fast, processes or systems that make things harder instead of better.
Bring the employee in and ask if there is something more — maintain an attitude of openness and curiosity. You’ll be surprised what you can learn if you are willing to hear the real answers.
Terminate the Problem Employee. If you have tried the suggestions above and things are not improving, then it’s time to fire the problem employees. Give it a reasonable time, a week or two if there doesn’t seem to be any other root causes. If there are other problems, then address those first.
Whether the employment is termination at-will or termination only “for cause,” disrupting the work environment, taking up other people’s time with personal gripes or issues, interfering with others’ ability to perform their jobs, and stirring up drama that interferes with work are all “good cause” for termination.
A “hire slow, fire fast” approach is usually the best. If it doesn’t blow over quickly, then it will only get worse. Disruptive and disgruntled employees affect everyone, and just cause more damage the longer they are around.