5 Ways To Manage Ideal and Troublesome Employees

Over the past weeks, we’ve been discussing performance management and the importance of maintaining regular, developmental communication with your employees. Ideally your employees love their jobs, understand the company mission and goals, and want to positively contribute to the culture and growth of the company.

Once in a while, though, you encounter employees who want to challenge processes (instead of attempting to improve them), weaken the culture, and who don’t care much about the company growth because they are too focused on themselves. Both types of employees (what we’ll call the ideal employees and troublesome employees) need their performance to be actively managed so that you can keep ideal employees happy and turn troublesome employees into ideal employees. Here are five ways you can actively manage your people for the best outcomes:

1. Recognize actions. If you’re working with an ideal employee, this will include the reward and recognition we all need and want to do more of. In the opposite case, however, you’ll acknowledge which actions need correction and which are appropriate. In either case, this step is VITAL. Ideal employees feel valued and troublesome employees know their behavior is noted and have the opportunity to improve. If your managers aren’t recognizing actions, we HR professionals need to step in and manage the performance of our managers so they also see the importance.

2. Formally document actions. Documenting the action makes it official and lets the employee know that others are aware of the behavior. Employees should also understand why that behavior (good or bad) is meaningful to you, the company, and the employees. For the ideal employee, this could be a star performer award or an email to upper management. For the troublesome employee, this can be a log of the behavior or a written warning. Personally, I believe when the employee knows the action is recorded, it’s the most effective and natural way to correct or reinforce behavior. In the case of the troublesome employee, recording actions make later steps less surprising. Make sure every complaint or action is listed so you have the complete story outlined should these ever need to be revisited for any reason. This protects you and shows you made the right moves along the way. Documenting these interactions will help you know when you need to take action and will confirm you were justified when you do.

3. Listen to your employees. HR often doesn’t know exactly what happens in the trenches, but your employees see their coworkers actions and behaviors on a much different level. They know what is going unrecognized or unreported. They may recognize that an ideal coworker perpetually goes unrecognized because he/she is too humble or quiet for management to notice their contribution. However, employees also know when things don’t feel quite right about a troublesome employee and may bring situations to HR or managers. These employees can sometimes sow discord for some time before management becomes aware. So when an employee brings up an experience that happened with a coworker or mentions when something didn’t seem quite right, take it seriously. Do some research. Ask questions. Find out if other employees have had similar experiences. And watch.

4. Respond quickly. All employees want timely feedback. When you don’t respond, it’s still feedback and it’s telling employees the behavior and actions are acceptable. This perpetuates success when the action truly is acceptable; however, lack of feedback can perpetuate bad behaviors and lead other employees (who witness these actions) down the wrong path. Continuous feedback can have a tremendous impact on your company culture and momentum.

5. Be direct. Employees will benefit from direct feedback. Sometimes we have to have hard conversations. Sometimes you have to let employees go, and your actions and words should be direct and to the point. They should know why they are leaving (if you’ve done the previous steps properly, this shouldn’t be a surprise) and not be confused by the tone of the meeting. Although you want to be sympathetic, resist praising substandard employees’ past performance while letting them go. Yes, let your employees go with dignity, but make sure they know what went wrong and how they can fix it in the future. And, of course, you’ll want to restrict employee access by removing credentials, keys, or key cards, but do it with delicacy.

Although this next step is not part of progressive discipline, it’s actually the first step you should do to protect your company and employees: hire smart. We need to do our due diligence to fully vet our applicants’ credentials by verifying past employment and references. Although this is where liability and ethics get a little murky, do your best to really understand what type of employees they are. Many companies won’t elaborate on employee performance or comment on personality or work ethic for fear of exposing themselves for legal action (which can be heightened if the employee was troublesome), but if you ask the right questions and engage in the right conversations, you can often get a pretty good idea about what kind of employee they were. Listen for tone of voice, what the past employer says about them, and what they aren’t saying or won’t say about them.

Sometimes a company will only verify dates of employment and won’t elaborate even a little—no matter what kind of employee your applicant was. If applicants’ credentials are in order and the selected past work they’ve chosen to include in their application seems respectable or even commendable, what can you do?

Unfortunately, there’s no fail-safe formula or outline for protecting your company from hiring a well-concealed troublesome employee. Taking a more active role in performance management and being committed to a strong plan of progressive discipline when you realize what you have are both vital steps, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do with some troublesome employees but let them go.

But what happens when companies come calling, asking about these troublesome employees. What do you do? I’d love to know your thoughts on a few especially troublesome ethical questions:

· Is it ethical to extend your research to social media and find past co-workers who might provide insights into the type of employee your applicant was?

· If a past employer knows a past employee was toxic, do they have a moral obligation to give some signal (however subtle) of the type of employee they dealt with when called for reference?

· How much do your employees need to know about a volatile employee’s dismissal? How could it affect the culture if the ex-employee contacts current employees (or is FaceBook friends) and misrepresents the circumstances surrounding his/her dismissal or bad-mouths the company?

Although I don’t necessarily advocate transparency of the circumstances to current employees, I’ve seen the last scenario play out at several companies I’ve worked for. It doesn’t take much to plant a thought of doubt that can erode culture, confidence in the company, and the performance of even your best employees.

In the end, we’re all “practicing” HR, which means that we are learning and growing from every experience we have. We’re in this together, as members of a larger HR family.