Inspiring Thoughts from EAC

Top 3 Things Managers Need to Know About a Problem Employee

know about problem employeeOver the last few weeks, I’ve received calls from managers who want help fixing a “problem employee”. The verb “fix” means: to mend or correct something.  The implication is that the employee is broken and needs repair. What I have discovered in these situations is that it is not the employee who is broken, but the communication between the employee and the manager has broken down.   The first step in fixing the employee is fixing the communication.  One of my favorite quotes is from George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Get agreement about what will happen next.

Think about the last conversation you had with someone.  Chances are that you left that conversation thinking you had agreement about solving a problem, agreement about who was going to do what, agreement about an event, etc.  In your mind, you had an agreement.  Did you verify this with the other person?  In day-to-day living, most of us fail to take the step to confirm what we heard was, in fact, what the other person wanted to tell us. Or verify that what we said was what the other person actually heard.  Why?  Because it takes time and we are busy!

Ask questions.

Let’s examine a conversation between a supervisor and a subordinate discussing a project.  For this illustration, we will call the supervisor, Pat, and the employee, Sam.  Pat says, “Sam, we have an important deadline looming with XYZ project; I need you to go out there and make it happen.”  Sam replies, “Sure boss; I’ll get it done.”  If this is the end of the conversation, what’s the risk to Sam if the deadline isn’t met?  Chances are that Pat will blame Sam.  Sam, in turn, thinks, “I did my best, but I didn’t have the resources or the budget, or any number of reasons why the deadline wasn’t met.” Then, Sam may stop talking to Pat. When people who work together stop sharing information, it can be the beginning of the end for one or both parties.  A few more missed deadlines and Sam may not have a job.  Whose fault is it?  Sam’s? After all, Sam didn’t deliver on the promise.  Pat’s?  After all, Pat gave the direction in the first place. I believe it is both.  Pat and Sam were under the illusion that they heard and understood one another. The best way to prevent this type of misunderstanding is to become skilled at asking questions.  When Pat gave Sam the instruction to meet the project deadline, Sam could have said, “Great, let me gather some data, and we can meet to review the steps needed to finish the project.”   Or, “I’m confident that I can move the project forward; let’s meet to review the details and your expectations.”  This would have given them both the opportunity to ask questions for clarification and understanding.  Chances are… the project would have been completed.  At the very least, Pat and Sam would be speaking to one another

Leave the meeting with a plan.

The next time you walk away from a conversation with your supervisor, a colleague or your subordinate and believe you have a good understanding of what’s going to happen next, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did we establish a time for another conversation to check in on progress?
  • Did I clearly communicate what I will do next?
  • Did they let me know what they will do next?
  • Did I clearly communicate expectations and consequences?
  • Did we establish a deadline for each task?
  • Did we discuss how we will report progress to each other?

When these questions become routine in your conversation with people at work, it will help fix that “problem person” and ensure that communication has taken place.

Are you a manager struggling with a problem employee? Help is available.  Log on to and download our free e-Book 3 Massive Mistakes Even Savvy HR Managers Make in Dealing with Difficult Employees.  Or call me (Leslie) at 616-464-2944 for a confidential discussion.

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