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MANAGING PEOPLE

How to handle 5 common types of problem staffers

Every office has its problem employees. And confronting them is a task every manager dreads.

There is, however, an easy way to do it: with a brief, nonconfrontational conversation. Tell the staffer what behavior the manager expects, tell what positive results the office will see from the change, and leave no room for argument.

Here management trainer Jamie Resker, president of Employee Performance Solutions in Boston, shows how to apply that to some not unusual issues.

1 The work shirker

First is the work avoider. That’s the slacker, or the staffer who’s always absent from work, either physically or mentally or both.

The avoider shows up late, calls in sick, blames the poor work on “not feeling well,” does the minimum (sometimes less), “and for whatever reasons, just isn’t engaged in the job.”

That isn’t the employee who has a bad day now and then. It’s the employee who has a bad day every day.

Be nonconfrontational and leave no room for argument.

Don’t criticize the staffer. Instead, tell the staffer what behavior the manager expects to see.

To criticize somebody is to ask for excuses, Resker explains. Suppose the manager says “during the last 10 days, you’ve come in late four times.” That’s tantamount to “please give me a lot of excuses for that.” And it’s only human for the staffer to come up with reasons why the lateness was unavoidable.

Instead, tell what the manager expects: “It’s important to our office that you work a full week and meet your deadlines. That means being here every day from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.”

Then tell the why of it, and tell it in terms of “the positive impact the employee will have” by following the directive: “only if everybody is here on time and engaged in the work can we operate efficiently.”

There’s no confrontation. And there’s no room for argument. What can the staffer say to that – “no, I don’t have to come in on time”?

Any employee who wants to keep the job will have to agree to the directive.

2 The constant criticizer

What about the critic? That staffer does just what the title says – criticizes the office, the doctors, the manager, and anybody associated with the office.

The criticism can be direct: the staffer says the office is a horrible place to work, the patients aren’t treated well, or whatever.

It can also be subtle: the staffer sits in meetings smirking, rolling the eyes, and muttering flip remarks.

The solution, Resker says, is to repeat the kindergarten rule of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Just give an adult version of it: “When you have a thought about the office that isn’t entirely positive, hold on to it. It’s okay to have those thoughts, but keep them under your hat.”

Once again, the focus isn’t on what has happened but on what the manager wants to see.

When a manager tells an employee what’s expected “and when it’s reasonable and within the employee’s control,” there’s no room for argument.

3 The gossiper and the talker

Use the same approach with any type of unacceptable behavior, Resker says.

Suppose the office has a gossiper who has to talk about everybody else in the office.

Once again, don’t criticize. Instead, lay out the expectations: “It’s natural to be interested in what’s going on in other people’s lives, but one of the things I need you to do is stay focused on your work and resist the temptation to share what you know about another employee.”

Then give a positive reason: “people need to know their privacy is being respected so they can focus on their work.”

That “holds the hand mirror up that the employee,” she says. The staffer sees how the behavior hurts the office or even other people.

It also identifies the problem without getting specific about what the staffer has been saying. And it leaves no room for argument.

She gives a similar example of the staffer who becomes the focus of every Monday morning by talking about the weekend’s exploits. All the manager needs to say is “one of the things that’s important for us is that everybody focus on the work at hand. So I need to ask you to keep the majority of your conversations related to business.”

Again, no confrontation and no argument.

4 Okay – whatever – can I leave now?

But people management is never an exact science, and not every staffer is going to agree to change the behavior, Resker says.

One possible reaction is that the staffer doesn’t take the manager seriously and comes back with “Okay, whatever. Are we done? Can I leave now?”

The I-don’t-care reaction “is another way of telling the manager to take a long walk off a short pier.” It says there will be no change.

Don’t quit.

Verify that the staffer understands the directive: “Are we in agreement on this? I need to make sure we’re on the same page.”

If the response is still negative or even becomes hostile, leave no room for misunderstanding: “I see you’re rolling your eyes, so I assume you are not on board with this. I have to tell you this is very important, so I’m going to give you the rest of the day to think about it. We’ll meet again in the morning and revisit this.”

Then to drive the point home, send an e-mail confirming tomorrow’s meeting.

That response “is respectful,” she says, and so is giving the staffer time to absorb the matter. But there’s nothing open-ended or wishy-washy about the statement. The manager has asked the staffer “is it yes or is it no?”

If the next morning’s meeting isn’t any better, raise the stakes: “I am hearing that you are not on board with this. That’s okay, but now we must talk about the consequences, because I can’t allow this to continue. Is that the direction you want to take?”

Now the staffer knows the matter is not going to be dropped and that failure to comply with the request will result in disciplinary action.

5 The repeat offender

Be prepared too for the possibility of a repeat offense, Resker says.

When it happens, address it in much the same way as the first time.

Suppose the Monday morning rehashings of the weekend continue: “We talked earlier about keeping conversations related to business. I can’t help overhearing you talking again about your personal business. There may be things in your personal life that are worth talking about. But I need you to think about what’s appropriate at work and what should be left for social time.”

Or suppose the critic keeps criticizing: “We said yesterday that when you have a thought that isn’t positive, you need to keep it under your hat. I just heard you say Dr. A is incompetent. You need to keep that opinion to yourself.”

And then put some teeth into by pointing out that change is the staffer’s only option: “I’ve outlined exactly what I need you to do differently. If you choose not to agree, that’s up to you. However, I need to let you know that if we can’t work this out together, we’ll need to escalate things to another level.”

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