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  • Brian Kinzie, MBA, SHRM-CP

How to Not Create a Problem Employee

“You know, now that you are a consultant, you really should have a blog.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Almost all consultants have blogs. It makes them look legit. It increases their Internet presence, page views, and all that fun stuff that helps attract clients. It also satisfies our deeply seated need to let other people know what great experts we are.

So I said, “Sure, I’ll start a blog! I’ll get my first post done this week!” And here it is Friday, and I’m not feeling quite as brilliant as I did on Monday when I proclaimed I would write my first entry. What the heck would I talk about? And what would it hurt to start this next week when the creative juices may be really flowing? Ahh, one of the great dangers of being self-employed – in many ways, the only person keeping you responsible for things is yourself. And most people, you know, being people, tend to do a bit better when someone is holding them accountable in some fashion. I muttered to myself, “I’m in danger of becoming a Problem Employee…”

Eureka! I’ll write about the Problem Employee. Or more specifically, how to not create one in the first place. So here is a single tip, and one that if done correctly can save everyone a lot of hassle and drama later down the line.

When you see a behavior in an employee that isn’t one you want to see repeated, say something about it. Immediately.

Very, very few people set out at a new job thinking, “Yup, I’m going to be a lousy employee and my manager’s worst nightmare.” Here is a typical situation – one that I have seen many, many times over the years. For this example, I am going to talk about tardiness, but it could literally be any behavior that is causing problems.

John the New Guy starts at XYZ company, reporting to Bob the Manager. Four days into the job, John has a really bad morning at home. He discovers he has run out of coffee, burns his toast in the toaster, and his pet goldfish is looking a bit green in the gills. As a result, he is about 10 minutes late to work. Let’s face it – these things happen.

Bob the Manager thinks John the New Guy is the best thing since sliced bread. He knows his stuff, has been productive immediately, and is getting along well with his co-workers. Of course he notices that John is 10 minutes late, but he says to himself, “huh, John the New Guy must have had a bad morning. No need to say anything.”

And this is pretty much how it starts. Most of us human being types are pretty non-confrontational. We avoid conflict – at times, to a fault. So we tend to not want to have a potentially difficult conversation, and push things to the side until…

On the second week of work, John the New Guy was late a couple more times. His coffee pot overflowed one morning, and on another morning, his pet goldfish went from looking green around the gills to having to ride the porcelain express to that great goldfish resting place in the sky. His boss Bob is a great guy, and hasn’t said a word about John being late. So it must be OK…

Six months later, John the Not So New Guy routinely comes in anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes late. His co-worker Nancy is ready to strangle him because she has to answer all the phones by herself when John isn’t there to help. Her boss Bob is completely ignoring the situation, clearly playing favorites in her mind. Nancy has started sending out her resume, looking for a better situation. And Bob the Manager, finally unable to tolerate the tardiness, blows up at John the Not So New Guy and threatens to fire him if he is ever late again. John the Not So New Guy decides that Bob isn’t really such a great guy if he is going to suddenly start making up new rules and yelling at him, so he also starts brushing up his resume. Fast forward, and Bob the Manager has lost both Nancy and John.

The point of all this is that when a manager sees a behavior that is problematic, they need to say something to the employee immediately. It doesn’t need to be confrontational. On that first day that John the New Guy was late, Bob could have simply said, “hey, I know things happen from time to time that cause us to run late, and that is fine – life happens. But when you run late, it really puts Nancy in a bind trying to cover everything by herself. So please make every effort to be here on time, and if you are running late for some reason, please send a message to me so I can arrange for coverage.” John says, “No problem, cool.” And, being a normal person who doesn’t want to be a Problem Employee, he makes an effort to always be on time.

Silence means approval. When an employee repeatedly does something a manager doesn’t like, and the manager never says anything, they are essentially giving tacit permission to that behavior. It becomes the norm for that employee, and they truly don’t think they are doing anything wrong – after all no one has ever said anything. And at that point, it isn’t really the employee’s fault - it is the fault of the manager.

So, if you are a manager, give yourself a kick and have that conversation at the onset. If you are an employee, try your best not to put your manager in an awkward position to begin with. And if you are a co-worker caught in the drama, try not to strangle anyone.

I will try to espouse wisdom on a semi-regular basis here. And if you ever need some advice on how to deal with the Problem Employee (or the Problem Manager), Tinker HR is here to help. Give me a holler!

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