How to handle difficult employee situations with ease

Few things are more frustrating and angst-ridden than dealing with difficult employees, and even fewer things keep managers up more at night than worrying about an upcoming confrontation with substandard job performers or workers with conduct problems.

Still, there are certain ways of managing challenging individuals that are more effective than others. Addressing substandard job performance and misconduct issues consistently and proactively will help you increase productivity, protect your company legally, and restore camaraderie to your team. Following are some key tips and guidelines for setting up these management interventions to maximize the chances of success.

1. Distinguish between substandard job performance and misconduct

Employers often mistakenly treat these two classifications of infractions similarly when, in fact, they are seen (and should be treated) very differently in the eyes of the law. When it comes to performance and attendance, employers are expected to take workers through “steps” of notification that point out the problem, address expectations in resolving it and point to consequences for not doing so (i.e., “failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment”).

That’s not necessarily the case with conduct-related infractions. Employers have a lot more discretion and may move to a final written warning or immediate termination for a first offense with egregious misconduct issues (e.g., theft, embezzlement, fraud or forgery).

2. Distinguish between sameness and consistency

Employers sometimes mistakenly assume that all situations must be treated the same when, in fact, it’s consistency they should strive for. For example, when it comes to sleeping on the job, does your organization have a one-size-fits-all approach? That’s not necessarily “wrong,” so long as you treat all cases consistently. But here’s how some hospitals generally treat the matter:

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  • A clerk sleeping on the job may receive a written warning for a first-time occurrence.
  • A nurse overseeing patients in the intensive care unit during the night shift may receive a final written warning for a first-time offense.
  • An anesthesiologist falling asleep during surgery may be terminated immediately for a first-time occurrence.

In other words, it’s not the sleeping itself that drives the outcome; it’s the circumstances surrounding the act of sleeping on the job and the potential organizational impact that drive the employer’s response. Likewise, you’ll typically handle a 30-year employee differently than a three-month employee even when the same infraction is involved. When in doubt, speak with qualified legal counsel about how to handle a particular disciplinary infraction or termination, especially in light of your organization’s past practices.

3. Remember that verbal engagements need not be confrontational

Before you move forward with documented corrective action in the form of a written warning, attempt to address the infraction verbally whenever possible. Spoken respectfully and quietly, your message will carry even more gravity than if shared with emotion or drama of any sort. Offer to help, and make yourself available to support the individual to reach established performance goals while reestablishing performance and productivity expectations. Seen this way, strong leadership is constantly supportive but has the “teeth” necessary to escalate matters as needed. For example, you might open your verbal discussion like this:

“Tony, the most important decisions about your career will be made when you’re not in the room. That’s the same for you as it is for me as it is for everyone else. I want to talk with you about something that may be missing awareness and that could negatively impact your career when you’re not in that proverbial room at some point in the future to defend yourself. Do I have your permission to share my observations with you?”

Tying constructive feedback to the employee’s best career interests is where all potentially difficult conversations should start, whenever possible.

4. Escalate to documented corrective action when appropriate

When discussions and conversations don’t yield the results you were hoping for as the business owner or manager, then providing documented disciplinary action is the next logical step. This not only protects your company legally but also escalates the seriousness of the matter in the employee’s mind, encouraging a true turnaround.

With a firm record of verbal interventions and written corrective action in place, most problematic performers or workers will course-correct or simply and quietly move on to another organization without the drama and histrionics of a lawsuit. (After all, “Did they ever put anything in writing?” is one of the first questions that a plaintiff’s attorney will ask a potential client before agreeing to take on a case. If the answer is, “Yes—they gave me three separate documents outlining the problems, and I did, in fact, violate the terms of the final written warning,” then most plaintiff’s attorneys won’t take the case. Remember, they work on contingency, meaning they only get paid if they win, so they tend to avoid cases with strong documentation in place.)

Should ex-employees try to challenge you legally, you’ll have an exceptionally strong defense record in place because of your written disciplinary interventions. More importantly, you’ll send the right message to the rest of your remaining team that you and your company are supportive and willing to help and make yourself part of the solution, but are likewise ready to confront substandard job performance or workplace misconduct head-on without hesitation—which is probably the most important lesson of all.