Taking on troublesome employees: A 4-step discussion plan

With some employees, the problem isn’t a matter of ability, it’s a matter of attitude. This can manifest itself in everything from quiet disobedience to outright insubordination.

How should you respond? Rather than becoming entangled in a debate about the employee’s dysfunctional attitude, address the situation strictly as a behavioral problem. That way, it’s not only easier to resolve, but also a better way to make a case for dismissal.

Your first step is to document the behavior. Write down specific verbal and physical behaviors and actions that concern you, hurt team morale, damage productivity or reflect badly on the organization. Don’t forget to record nonverbal behaviors, such as rolling eyes, clenching fists and staring into space.

Narrow the issue to the precise problem. Identify exactly what type of behavior the attitude has caused. This list may help:
  • Carelessness
  • Complaining
  • Disruptive or explosive conduct
  • Inattention to work
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Insubordination
  • Laziness
  • Negative/cynical posture
  • Surly/inconsiderate/rude talk
  • Excessive socializing

Record the frequency of such misconduct, plus how it affects work flow and colleagues’ performance. List good business reasons why the behavior must end.

The 4-Step Discussion Plan

Expert HR trainer Amy Anderson recommends that your discussions with troublesome people focus on these four points:

1. the ‘What’
  • Precisely pinpoint the problem to the employee.
  • Focus on specific task outcomes and/or behaviors.
  • Use examples.
  • Reference previous conversations.
Example: “As we’ve discussed before, your backlog is unacceptable and deadlines are being missed. You know our department standard is ____ and you are not meeting it by _____.” (Cite specific expectations and examples of poor performance and/or behavior.)

Another approach: “How do you think things are going with your backlog and deadlines this month? I know you’ve been worried about meeting our department standard.” (Actively listen.) “What do you think the problem is? Why is it happening?”

2. the Impact
  • Identify the negative impact (on quality, productivity, service, others, goals, etc.).
  • Gain agreement that a problem exists.
  • Discuss future consequences if the problem continues.
Example: “When these deadlines are missed, other departments are affected and it impacts our service. For example …” (Cite specifics.) “Do you agree this is a problem? I am documenting our conversation. Failure to improve will lead to disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Another approach: “What do you think happens when these deadlines are missed? How do you think it impacts service?” (Actively listen.) “I know this is difficult and I have confidence you’ll take care of this, but failure to improve will lead to disciplinary action up to and including termination. Just so you’re aware, I do need to document our conversation.”

3. the ‘How’
  • Generate solutions to solve the problem.
  • Decide on the best course of action.
  • Gain commitment from the employee on his or her role in solving the problem.
Example: “I have created a turnaround plan for you with steps to make the necessary improvements. First …” (Describe the plan.) “What can I further clarify? Are you willing to follow this plan?”

Another approach: “Let’s brainstorm ideas on what you can do to meet the standard. I’m here to support you in any way I can. I want you to be successful.” (Actively listen, reinforce the employee’s workable ideas, add your own ideas and confirm the plan.) “These are good action steps. Can you summarize them in an e-mail this afternoon?”

4. the ‘When’
  • Establish a follow-up strategy.
  • Clearly determine how and when you and the employee will review progress.
  • Set specific dates for check-in meetings.
  • Recognize improvements as they happen (even small steps).
Example: “I’ll be checking your workload each day to see how you’re progressing. Let’s also meet every Friday in the conference room at 3:00 to review how you’re specifically performing on the plan. Those meetings will also be documented.”

Another approach: “Let’s meet regularly to go over your progress. How frequently do you think is workable?” (Remain open to the employee’s suggestion but add your input as necessary.) “Let’s go ahead and put that on our calendars.”