Problem Employees?

Problem employees may be disruptive, unproductive, destructive, unhelpful, frequently absent, or just disconnected. It’s not uncommon for problem employees to emerge after the “honeymoon” period of just being hired or to even surprise everyone with bad behavior after a long track record of success. What’s important is to take a hard and objective look at problem employees and understand the reasons they become problems (or start as one).

Employees are liabilities instead of assets for one or more of the following four reasons:

  1. Lack of intellectual horsepower. Intellectual horsepower is a competency that is hard to change (per my experience and the experience of the folks behind Topgrading). Not having intellectual horsepower severely cripples effectiveness, especially as tasks become more complex and dynamic. It is not unusual for people’s roles and responsibilities to outgrow their intellectual horsepower. When someone applies him/herself to a job and no longer succeeds at it (because the job has changed), take an objective look at their intellectual horsepower. Also, don’t be surprised if the increased demands of a position leave the person feeling overwhelmed and fleeing, freezing, or fighting (the three reactions to being overwhelmed).
  2. Compromised character. The compromise usually starts to reveal itself in poor interpersonal interaction and lack of integrity. Lack of integrity has obvious pitfalls for any organization that extends trust to its employees, including everything from rule breaking to theft. Poor interpersonal interaction can have much more subtle effects on an organization and can include problems such as angry outbursts, being “two-faced”, being narcissistic, failing to develop subordinates, failing at being a team-player, etc. Basically, this heading includes all problems between people that remain unresolved and, therefore, left to fester.  You can tell if you have poor interpersonal interaction on your hands when teams stop working well, when people avoid particular individuals, and when getting people pulling in the same direction in your organization becomes a real challenge. Please note: Poor interpersonal action in someone who was functioning well can be a symptom of stress due to new responsibilities, personality conflicts with subordinates, or issues outside the workplace (problems at home, for example).
  3. Compromised mental or physical health. Mental and physical health problems cost employers billions of dollars each year and this accounting generally does not include the organizational disruption caused by these problems. On an individual level, chronic diseases are the most likely to compromise an employee and move them from being an asset to a liability. This includes conditions such as mood disorders, substance abuse, and chronic physical disorders such as diabetes and chronic pain. On occasion, an employee may become a problem when a loved one develops a chronic disease. They may be healthy but distracted by their caregiving responsibilities.
  4. Poor employee management. In these cases the problem is not the employee, the problem is his or her manager. In general, the problem employee is not given sufficient direction, is held accountable to unclear expectations, or is given weak feedback on performance. If this is the case, the manager can elevate the employee’s performance by setting clear goals, priorities, expectations, and providing meaningful feedback. A special case of poorly managed employees is when an employee is promoted to his or her level of incompetence: The so called “Peter Principle” in action. In general, this happens when the employee fails at a new position and becomes a problem for reason one or two above. Another special case of a poorly managed employees is when employee morale is low due to the dysfunction of the organization. When poor performance is the rule, rather than the exception, inevitably there is serious organizational dysfunction at work. A poor manager:
  • Promotes without merit
  • Avoids responsibility for problems
  • Does little work him or herself
  • Takes credit when it’s not due
  • Plays favorites

Understanding the reason an employee is a problem starts the process of solving the problem. Solutions include development, re-assignment, and treatment of mental health and medical problems. Which reason or reasons best describes your problem employee?

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