Coping with problem employees is difficult for every manager, but it is particularly tough for IT managers. In IT, managers have it much harder because, generally speaking, their staff is much less apt to conform than those in other departments.
When I say “problem employee,” I am referring to those employees whose undesirable behaviors affect the morale and operations of the entire department. For some reason, every organization seems to have at least one of these employees. Some examples of problem behaviors that I have witnessed are as follows:
- An employee’s temper causes everyone to tip-toe around them in fear of inciting their anger.
- An employee just does not do what they are asked even after repeated requests.
- An employee is habitually late.
- An employee’s negativity detracts from the mission of the business.
- A staff member continues to spend way too much time on personal computer stuff even after numerous warnings.
- An employee complains incessantly about everything.
Whatever the problem behavior, there are two ways of dealing with it: do nothing or take action. However, in about 99 percent of cases, ignoring the problem only makes it worse. Why does this happen? In my opinion, it is because doing nothing and pretending the problem will go away on its own is tantamount to encouraging — even rewarding — the undesirable behavior.
The impact of doing nothing
Of equal importance, you must also consider the effects doing nothing will have on the rest of your staff. Allowing one employee’s bad behavior to persist destroys your credibility as a manager. Whether you acknowledge it or not, your entire staff knows that there is a problem, and when you do nothing, your staff wonders why you do not act. In the end, your inaction dilutes your effectiveness as a manager.
One firm that I was assisting had an employee that was habitually 15 to 30 minutes late. Sometimes the manager took corrective action, and sometimes he ignored the problem. When dealing with these types of problems, consistency is critical. If employees perceive you or your policies to be inconsistent, your credibility is non-existent, and problem behaviors will escalate.
Where more serious problems are concerned, you must address the issue no matter how important or valuable the employee is. No employee should become so valuable that you cannot do without him or her. The minute an employee becomes invaluable, you allow that employee to take you hostage. The goals and mission of the department must be given a higher priority than the welfare of one problem employee.
Problem employees affect every single staff member, and I guarantee you that your staff would rather work harder and longer than put up with bad behavior. They will all be willing to pitch in if it means their working environment will be improved.
One effective way to approach a problem employee is to ascertain the real issue, then address it in a meeting. The sooner this meeting takes place, the more quickly the problem can be resolved.
Begin this meeting by briefly discussing some of the positive contributions the employee has made during his or her tenure. For example, you might say how grateful you are that the employee has worked at your firm for three years, noting the ways he or she has improved the quality of client service. Next, tell the employee the areas that concern you. You might say, “However, I am concerned with the way you are treating your subordinates and the amount of days you have been missing.” Some employees will be argumentative, but most will nod their head in agreement.
Before closing the meeting, ask, “What can we do together to work on this problem?” Ask the employee to establish a timeline within which the problem will be corrected. Of course, this timeline will have to be relatively short. At this stage, it is important that you stress how critical the issue is and discuss what the consequences will be if the problem is not rectified. Finally, close the meeting by reminding the employee how much you appreciate their contributions, and ask them to sign a statement that this discussion has taken place.
Once the meeting is over, it is vital that you summarize the major points in a letter to the employee. This will reinforce the importance of the issues and serve as written notice of the consequences of non-compliance. Unfortunately, in most cases these problems are so habitual or deeply ingrained in the employee’s nature that they are not able to correct them, and the employee must be terminated. In these cases, it is paramount that you follow through on the consequences you indicated.
Without exception, when a problem employee is removed, the morale of the entire business improves drastically. While terminating employees is not a pleasant experience, the price is much higher when you allow a problem behavior to continue. Additionally, in so many cases, termination was exactly what that employee really wanted. They just did not have the courage to quit.
Problem employees can have devastating affects on the morale of your entire department. By dealing quickly and fairly with these employees, you can ensure that your IT department remains a wonderful place to work.
Jerry Osteryoung is the Director of Outreach at the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Florida State University; the Jim Moran Professor Emeritus of Entrepreneurship; and Professor Emeritus of Finance. His newest book with Tim O’Brien is entitled, If You Have Employees, Then You Really Need This Book!, and can be purchased on Amazon. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.