Posted by: garispang | July 28, 2009

Are you the proverbial ‘difficult employee’?

difficult employeeLast month I had a meeting with one of my old friends, who is now VP–HR in a fairly large IT setup. He informed me that he is planning to lay off a couple of hundred people in his company, in a phased manner. What surprised me was that he mentioned that out of them around 80% are ‘difficult employees’.  I wondered aloud what was his definition of a ‘difficult employee’. What he told me was interesting and forms the basis of this post.

“In every department/organization there are few people who are arrogant, demeaning (to others), insubordinate, not trustworthy, (always) cribbing and unproductive. And these employees are a huge drain for an organization in terms of wasted time, reduced productivity, inefficiency, and ultimately resulting in customer loss.” I again asked him as to why did the team, then not take precautions while hiring? He said these are traits and sometimes it is difficult to observe them during an interview. You get to know about them only from observing them in terms of their approach, attitude, performance, productivity and feedback from co-workers and managers etc.

It sure means that ‘difficult employees’ are at the first place in the queue when it comes to being shown the door.

Based on his observation and my research, I am listing a few traits/signs that can label you as a ‘difficult employee’. They are:

Work is your foe/ additional responsibility:

I, like many people, don’t like to work long hours or during weekends. But in a down economy & competitive environment your approach towards this additional work plays a huge role in whether you are a valuable employee of the organization or not. Organizations generally perceive an employee’s worth by evaluating his/her work ethics.

Your personal problems are public knowledge:

If most of your colleagues are aware of all your personal problems, from hole in the shoe, missed breakfast, argument with friend, mismatched nailpolish, then this point is for you. No one is really interested in these kind of regular updates. This can create a sort of distraction among the other employees who already are overworked and busy in meeting deadline. You will suddenly see co-workers distancing from you. So keep your personal problem very personal.

You & your company are not on the same page:

You don’t have to be alcoholic if you work for Kingfisher beverages. But you need to understand the vision and approach of your company and work towards it. If you are heard making fun of the company or its products/services it can hamper the office environment, spirit of teamwork, your relation with co-workers and the management. The company is better off without you for the the fact that, you don’t understand and respect your work.

You don’t appreciate feedback from others:

“True feedback can put you on the elevator of learning”, says Vinayak Joshi, CEO, Learning Concepts, an e- learning solutions provider. If you don’t take feedback positively it means you are limiting your learning and your knowledge and you have very little chance to improve your weaknesses. This will affect your work efficiency for sure. So lest you end up getting the pink slip, learn to take in what people are saying.

You are always complaining:

“My computer is slow, co-workers are not supportive, my boss is very strict, there is no AC in cabs, the food in cafeteria sucks”. Does this sound familiar?

Problems are with everyone, we need to work towards the solutions instead of revolving around the problem. No one likes complaining and that too about co-worker/boss/company/HR. If you face any problem, try to appreciate it from the other person’s perspective. Even then, if you feel problems are grave, then escalate it to the right person instead of being a cry baby. Your attitude of always cribbing/making noise can push you under the ‘firing’ range.

You hate accountability:

I have seen many people who are active enough when it comes to taking credit for some work but who retreat twenty steps backwards, in case of owning up responsibility. At any given point of time, you should be able to hold yourself accountable for the work done by you – good or bad – instead of playing the blame game. This will express your quality of initiation and leadership.

Even if you have any one of the traits mentioned above, I would suggest that you pull up your socks. By addressing the above points you can show to the organization your value of employment. So always welcome responsibility/ challenges with full enthusiasm. Who knows it could be a chance to establish yourself.

No one likes ‘difficult employees’ in their team, organization. Every organization wants an employee who can add value. So watch your approach in office, who knows someone is preparing list to lay off!


For Leaders in the company;

There’s no escaping to it. As a leader you will have to deal with difficult employees. By “difficult,” I’m referring to the myriad of attitudes ranging from egotistic, entitled and self-absorbed, to disrespectful, combative and just plain old arrogant. And then there’s the behavior issues such as resistance to change, ignoring rules and standards and lack of accountability. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean because it’s likely you have difficult employees on your team right now. The question is, what are you going to do about it – and when?

Difficult employees create drag and impede progress. It’s like a ship trying to gain speed while dragging an anchor. And the longer a leader allows the situation to continue, the more contamination spreads in the company culture. Difficult employees sap energy and divert attention away from work thereby adding unnecessary costs. Although leaders know they must engage and deal with difficult employees, too many allow these situations to continue until they go critical.

How much pain can you and your company endure? That’s my response to leaders that ask me how and when to deal with difficult employees. I’m not suggesting that leaders pounce on any employee at the first sign of negative behaviors. I am suggesting that leaders engage difficult employees with a measured response that begins by acknowledging behaviors as unacceptable with the employee and provide coaching. Should the behaviors continue, leaders must ratchet up the intensity of their response. This means specific coaching with timelines for improvement. This process continues with clearly defined consequences until termination becomes the only solution.

Here is a hit list of leadership blockages that prevent leaders from engaging and dealing with difficult employees:

Fear confrontational situations: Get over it. You’re confusing “confrontation” with “coaching.” As leader, it’s your responsibility to help employees achieve their full potential so the company can achieve its full potential. Engage, be respectful and coach difficult employees early. The longer you procrastinate, the more contamination you allow into your culture.

Don’t want to rock the boat: The boat is already rocking. More importantly, your team sees it and they’re waiting for you to engage. Your leadership credibility is on the line.

Employee is a high producer and you can’t afford to lose revenue now: I hear this argument all the time. It’s simply an excuse not to engage. It doesn’t matter how productive an employee, it’s your responsibility to protect the integrity of company and its culture – even if that requires you to terminate that high producer. Your business will recover rapidly simply because you eliminated a major source of drag and contamination.

Previous attempts to correct the problem haven’t worked: This one is interesting because it says the leader gave up and decided to tolerate the difficult employee. What it actually means is that the leader failed to ratchet up coaching process to achieve resolution.

Procrastination: It’s an excuse. You’re the leader. Engage.

You’re just stuck: You’ll remain stuck until you sit down with your difficult employee and have that crucial conversation that’s long overdue.

Remember, when it gets to the point where you are fighting harder to protect a difficult employee’s paycheck then the employee, it’s time to make a leadership decision and eliminate the drag from your culture. Allowing the situation to continue is compromise.


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