How to Handle Combative Employees
We’ve all experienced that team morale, productivity and customer service levels are at their highest when employees are civil and respectful toward management and each other. But this is the real world, and unfortunately that’s not always the case.
Behavior that is not consistent with basic collegial and professional expectations can result in significant negative consequences to the organization and its people and can increase an organization's potential liability.
Here are some potential negative employee behaviors from the SHRM Foundation to be watchful of:
Gossiping. While it tends to have both harmless and vicious connotations, gossiping generally refers to the actions of an individual who habitually reveals personal or sensational information about others, whether factual or not. Examples include speculating on the cause of a co-worker's divorce, repeating and embellishing overheard conversations meant to be private, and creating or repeating rumors about individuals or the company meant to be stirring or shocking.
Displaying general incivility/insolence. This includes engaging in rude, disrespectful speech or behaviors and physical intimidation, such as making insulting and demeaning statements; using angry, hostile tones; berating staff and colleagues in front of others; and shouting, throwing things or slamming doors when displeased. These behaviors are often directed at anyone the employee disagrees with or is agitated by.
Bullying. While bullying certainly can include uncivil behaviors, bullies often use less visible means of harming other employees, such as social isolation, condescending or contemptuous communications, and manipulation. Bullying is often directed at specific individuals, characterized by persistent abusive and intimidating behavior or unfair actions (assigning too much work, constantly changing deadlines, poor performance ratings, etc.), causing the recipient to feel threatened, abused, humiliated or vulnerable. Bullying is about having power over someone else—often a direct report, but also anyone who may seem weaker to the bully.
Exhibiting insubordination. Insubordination refers to an employee's intentional refusal to obey an employer's lawful and reasonable orders. This can manifest as a single event worthy of discipline or termination or as a series of lesser events that work to undermine a supervisor's authority over time. Examples of the latter include repeated warnings to reduce hostile remarks in meetings or to reduce harmful gossiping about other employees that go unheeded.
I’ve coached hundreds of business owners over the years. Unfortunately, it’s common that leaders at some point in their career have at least one employee who causes stress because of their negative behaviors. I’ve seen many leaders spend too much time and emotional energy on those employees - contemplating letting them go, but never pulling the employment trigger because of an underlying emotion of fear.
Erika Anderson, founding partner of Proteus, outlines these steps for dealing with difficult employees:
Listen. Often, when an employee is difficult we stop paying attention to what’s actually going on. We're irritated, it seems hopeless, and we’ve already decided what we think about the employee - so we just turn our attention to other things, out of a combination of avoidance and self-protection. But the best managers get very attentive when someone’s not doing well. They know their best shot at improving the situation lies in having the clearest possible understanding of the situation – including knowing the tough employee’s point of view. An added bonus: in some cases, simply listening can save the day. You may hear about a real problem that’s not the employee’s fault that you can solve; the tough employee may start acting very differently once he or she feels heard; you may discover legitimate issues he or she has that need to be addressed.
Give clear, behavioral feedback. Most managers will spend months, even years, complaining about poor employees... and not ever giving them actual feedback about what they need to be doing differently. Yes, giving tough feedback is one of the most uncomfortable things a manager has to do. But great managers learn to do to it reasonably well, and then they do it. Here’s a post where I outline the approach we teach. This approach does two key things: lowers the other person’s defensiveness, and gives them the specific information they need in order to improve. Whatever approach you use, make sure it does these two things.
Document. Whenever you’re having significant problems with an employee, WRITE DOWN THE KEY POINTS. I can’t stress this strongly enough. Dozens of times I’ve had managers tell me that they couldn’t let a difficult employee go because they had no record of his or her bad behavior. And all too often this lack of documentation arises out of misplaced hopefulness; that they didn’t want to be ‘too negative' about the employee (As if it would all magically go away if they didn't write it down). Good managers know that documentation isn’t negative – it’s prudent. Remember, if you're able to solve the problem, you can just breathe a sigh of relief and put your documentation in the back of the drawer.
Be consistent. If you say you’re not OK with a behavior, don’t sometimes be OK with it. Employees look to see what you do more than what you say. If, for instance, you tell employees that it’s critical they submit a certain report by a certain time, and then you’re sometimes upset and sometimes not upset when they don't do it…the less-good employees generally won’t do it. Pick your shots - only set standards you’re actually willing to hold to – and then hold to them.
Set consequences if things don’t change. If things still aren’t improving at this point, good managers get specific. They say some version of, “I still believe you can turn this around. Here’s what turning it around would look like. If I don’t see that behavior by x date, here’s what will happen” (e.g., “you’ll be let go,” or “ you’ll be put on warning,” or “you won’t be eligible for a promotion” – some substantive negative consequence.) If problem employees don’t believe their behavior will have any real negative impact on them – why would they change?
Work through the company’s processes. Good managers hold out hope for improvement until the point when they actually decide to let the person go. AND they make sure they’ve dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s that will allow them to fire the person if it comes to that. If you’re at this point in your efforts to address the situation, you ought to be having very clear conversations with HR so that you know (and are doing) exactly what you need to do to clear the path to termination, if that turns out to be necessary.
Don’t poison the well. All too often, poor managers substitute bad-mouthing the problem employee to all and sundry rather than taking the steps I’ve outlined above. No matter how difficult an employee may be, good managers don’t trash- talk to other employees. It creates an environment of distrust and back-stabbing, it pollutes others’ perception of the person, and it makes you look weak and unprofessional. Just don’t do it.
Manage your self-talk. Throughout this process, make sure your self-talk is neither unhelpfully positive nor unhelpfully negative. Thinking to yourself, “This guy’s an idiot and will never change,” isn’t useful, nor is thinking, “Everything will turn out fine, he’s great, there’s no problem.” Good managers take a fair witness stance, making sure that what they say to themselves about the situation is as accurate as possible. For example, “His behavior is creating real problems for the team. I’m doing what I can to support him to change. If he does, great, and if he doesn’t, I’ll do what I’ve said I’ll do.”
Be courageous. Firing someone is the hardest thing a manager has to do. If it gets to that point, do it right. Don’t make excuses, don’t put it off, don’t make someone else do it. The best managers do the tough things impeccably. And if – hallelujah - things turn around, be courageous enough to accept that; sometimes being proved wrong when we think someone’s not salvageable is almost as hard as being proved right.
If you learn to incorporate some of the mentioned approaches in handling difficult employee situations, you will eliminate or reduce your feelings of fear, will feel confident that you’ve done your due diligence, and will have a sense of confidence in whatever decision you make.
Wishing you comfort and peace in difficult situations,