“Uh, I don’t know how to say this, but you stink!”
of you know your way around a toolbox very well. If you didn’t, you’d be doing
something else for a living.
At some point, though, you likely are to find yourself in a predicament they
don’t teach in trade schools or apprenticeship classes. It’s how to cope with
the most complicated machinery any of us will ever confront – human beings.
People who are good at what they do tend to rise in the ranks, and as you come
up through the ranks of your trade, you probably will end up with a
responsibility for which you have zero training – that is, managing
This is an enormously complicated subject. The world of big business is mainly
about managing people, and many books have been written about the subject. What
I will do here in this short space is touch on some basics of people management
applicable to both large and small companies, and in particular, a topic likely
to crop up at some point with anyone who has supervisory responsibilities. That
is dealing with difficult employees.
You know the ones I’m referring to. They are the gossipers and rumor-spreaders.
They are the ones who always are badmouthing supervisors, co-workers or
customers. They are unhappy people who always see the glass as half-empty.
Their constant negativity poisons the workplace atmosphere.
Major problems with malcontents present a pretty straightforward solution. Get
rid of them. But that may be a difficult decision if the person is competent
and productive at a job, or has some special skill that is hard to come by.
What you need to weigh not only is the business value of that individual, but
also the drag on productivity and morale of everyone else in the company. This
includes managerial time spent addressing the problems caused by a sour
personality. A company’s success depends on more than one
Some may not be all that disruptive. Maybe they just have a bad habit that
makes them unpleasant to be around, like issues with personal hygiene,
inappropriate dress or vulgar language. Maybe they are smokers who reek of
tobacco to the irritation of non-smokers who must work only a few feet away.
Maybe they unconsciously drum their fingers or hum to the annoyance of those
around them. The bad habit can be tolerated until others start complaining
about it. Then you need to act.
Nobody likes having a conversation with an employee about a subject that makes
both of you squirm. Some of you may have an inkling of how to do this, based on
those uncomfortable birds-and-bees discussions with your young children. The
difficult conversations referred to here have a lot in common with confronting
the facts of life. The main word that comes to mind is
First, you need to document the disruptive behavior, then confront the employee
about it, giving him or her specific instructions and a timeframe for
correcting the action. Example: Apologize to someone who was unfairly maligned,
and do it by Friday or else you’re fired. If the disruptive behavior persists,
most of you probably will figure out instinctively when enough is enough. Just
be sure to document all the incidents and your responses in case the fired
employee takes legal action against you.
All negative conversations are uncomfortable, but those dealing with
performance issues are fairly straightforward. When people don’t perform to expectations
or did something wrong, it’s up to you to set them straight. Your tone may vary
from stern to kind, depending on the severity and frequency of the problem, but
it’s all about business.
The more difficult conversations are those that concern personal matters. It
may have to do with personal hygiene, inappropriate dress, vulgar language,
gossip, a bad attitude or any number of other personal behaviors that
co-workers or customers find offensive. It’s especially difficult to address
such matters with an otherwise exemplary performer. You don’t want to say
anything that might cause performance to decline or a top performer to leave.
At the same time, anything that causes business associates or customers to feel
uneasy can be said to disrupt optimal performance.
Trade professionals are renowned for being gruff straight-talkers. That’s not
anything to be ashamed of, and it provides effective communication for most of
your job-related tasks that need to be accomplished. Dealing with sensitive
issues of human behavior requires more tact, however. Here are some tips from
human resources professionals about how to conduct difficult conversations
about unacceptable personal habits or behavior.
1. Seek the employee’s permission to provide feedback. Even though you’re the
employee’s manager, start by letting the person know you have some feedback
you’d like to share and arrange a meeting. Don’t have this conversation in
front of any other co-workers.
2. Ease into the conversation. Let the person know that this discussion you are
about to have will be difficult for both of you. It’s not easy to talk to
someone about taking a shower every day!
3. Don’t pass the buck. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to provide
feedback to your staff even if it’s an issue you don’t want to address. Don’t
dodge your responsibility by stating you’re doing this only because a number of
other people have complained. This only intensifies the embarrassment, and
makes the person receiving the feedback more defensive. If it’s their concern,
it’s your concern as well.
4. Don’t beat around the bush. Choose your words carefully, but don’t get so
hung up on euphemisms that the employee doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
Example: “You’ve used some language around women working in this company that
they find offensive, and it needs to stop.”
5. Come prepared with facts. Document as specifically as possible the times and
places the disruptive behavior occurred. This will minimize those “no, I
didn’t” defenses that are the natural reaction to accusations.
6. State the consequences. Don’t assume that the employee understands why the
behavior cited is a problem. For instance, with the previous example, using
vulgar language not only is offensive to many people, it also creates an
atmosphere that could lead to sexual harassment lawsuits, or cause valued
employees to seek a job elsewhere. Bad body odor contributes to bad morale, and
could reduce productivity. Slovenly dress compromises the company’s image as an
industry leader, and so on.
7. Conclude on a positive note. Tell the person the positive impact that
changing the behavior will have on his/her overall job evaluation. Anyone can
make mistakes, but it’s a sign of good character to rectify mistakes and show
8. Reach an agreement about what the individual will do to change the behavior.
Set a due date – tomorrow, in some cases. Set a timeframe to review the
progress if needed. For example, if the employee is dressing inappropriately,
let the person know that starting tomorrow, wearing jean shorts/halter
tops/whatever will not be permitted. This is easier to do if you already have a
company dress code in writing, and the behavior cited violated that code. If
not, it’s time to put it in writing for all to see, not just the individual who
was called to task. Without a written policy, that individual could be
justified in complaining that you’re only “picking” on him.
9. Document the discussion. This needs to be included in the employee’s file,
and can be used as a reference for future conversations.
10. Follow up. When confronted, most people will shape up for a while, but it’s
hard to break bad habits, and slipping back into the old mode of behavior is
common. If the behavior resurfaces, confront it immediately. Depending on the
situation, disciplinary action may be called for.
Don’t let these situations linger for months. While it may be uncomfortable for
you to address these behavioral issues, rest assured it doesn’t get any easier
Also, don’t forget that all disciplinary conversations and actions become
easier if you can fall back on written rules of behavior. After all, it’s hard
to call someone on the carpet for inappropriate dress if what’s appropriate
isn’t spelled in an employee handbook – same with abusive/vulgar language,
personal hygiene and so on. Spell out, in writing, what’s expected from every
employee, and make it a condition of continued employment with your
Smart Business: Dealing with Difficult Employees
September 1, 2008