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Why Managers Avoid Dealing with Problem Employees

Appropriate action should be working toward employee improvement or moving on, says columnist

ROANOKE, Va. — No matter how perfect your work crew may be, there are always a couple of lower performing or problem employees. As I reflect back over my 45 years of working experience, I have heard a number of reasons why managers do not appropriately deal with these employees. 

My definition of appropriately dealing with problem employees is to get them to improve their performance or attitudes, or make the decision to move on to greener pastures. 

You will note that I did not set a goal to fire the employees. I can honestly say that in my many years in management I never fired anyone but watched a number of employees fire themselves.

The most often cited reason for not dealing with employees is that the organization just makes it too hard for us to discipline or fire an employee. I am the first to admit that there can be a number of steps required in dealing with poor attendance, poor performance or poor attitude of an employee. But most organizations have a well-defined path that can be followed to achieve your goals. 

The system wants to be sure that the employee has every chance to improve their behavior. The goal should always be to improve the employee, not fire them. The fact that there are a number of steps that must be followed is not a problem. Failure to understand and use the system only makes you look like an incompetent or lazy manager. 

A similar excuse is that if I write the employee up, they will complain to HR about me and I will have to defend my actions and I might look bad. These managers do not understand that failure to use the system established to deal with problem employees makes them look bad to their bosses and hurts morale with their other employees. 

This excuse also applies to employee performance reviews. I have seen many reviews scored higher than the employee deserves just to avoid that employee making a complaint. It is our job as managers to ensure that the actions taken are correct and accurate and can be properly defended. 

I have heard managers say that an employee is so valuable to my organization that I must protect them at all costs. Appropriate actions are not taken because the manager fears having to run his area without their help. The employee involved knows that and uses that fact to his or her advantage. It is also known by your staff and always leads to unhappy employees.

A similar excuse often heard is that they are my friend or their parents are my friends. Employing friends is always a difficult balancing act. A manager will likely have a problem treating the friend just like they would another employee. They either expect more from them or less than the average employee. No matter how they deal with the situation, their employees will always be talking about it. 

The goal or any manager is to reduce turnover and run an efficient operation with the appropriate amount of staff. Employees want to know they are appreciated for their efforts and that they are treated the same as everyone in the organization. 

Failure of management to deal with problem employees cause the good employees to wonder why they follow all the rules when others do not and there are no consequences. Some employees delay improving their performances because they know that until management is serious and deals with the real problem employees, they are safe. 

Poor management in this area will hurt productivity and increase turnover. In a tight labor market, turnover is expensive and a detriment to production. So as managers, learn your organization’s rules and actively use the system to encourage your employees to improve. 

Additional work now will make your job much easier in the future.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].