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Managing Problem Employees

Apples graphicHow to manage the three types

“One bad apple can ruin…” You know the saying, and it holds true in the material handling business as well. If even one employee on your team exhibits undesirable behavior or does not perform up to speed, it’s a major problem for your entire company. Just one problem employee can lessen productivity and hurt the morale of your entire team.

This especially impacts your top performers, who resent having to pick up the slack and hate working with negative people. Since retaining top performers is critical to your success, you need to do what it takes to keep them. Create an environment that appeals to them—one where people work together as a team. Otherwise, the highest-quality employees will become increasingly frustrated, and they will lose confidence in your ability to manage. Eventually, they will stop working at the highest level or, even worse, they may look elsewhere for a new job.

The Impact on Customers
Another reason you must take action with a problem employee is that customers talk. Your customers need quality service from your company at all levels of their experience. A negative encounter with any individual on your team can be a disaster. Eventually, word will spread and your entire company will get a bad reputation. This is something no distributor or manufacturer can afford.

In much the same way, if internal customers do not receive quality service from everyone on your team, it can cause significant problems in employee morale and the level of service you provide. This can seriously impede your company’s ability to win over the most profitable customers.

Employee Replacement Is Not the Answer
While it takes time, energy and patience to change a problem employee, it is still cheaper than recruiting, hiring and training a replacement. If you can successfully modify and improve an employee’s behavior and performance, the “rehabilitated” employee could become one of your organization’s greatest assets. Employee retention, therefore, is the goal, unless, of course, you realize the employee is not competent. Then, unfortunately, you may have to terminate him or her.

Type #1: The Grumblers
Negative employees are easy to identify. They rarely smile and hardly ever laugh. While competent in their job roles, they make negative remarks about you, your company, their co-workers and/or your customers. This occurs particularly when they are given a directive or when something is requested.

Negative employees will not be open to new technology, new procedures or, in fact, any new ways of doing things. They will complain that the company’s new service policy is a waste of time and will fail. If they see how a process or system is bogged down, they will complain about it to their co-workers at lunch. They will never suggest a new way to function. When new ideas are presented, they will invariably shoot them down.

Whether they are aware of it or not, negativity is the driving force in their lives. They consider themselves “victims” of whomever or whatever—maybe even the fact that they have to work for a living. Sadly, they do not realize that thinking of themselves as victims of their world and being negative keeps them feeling oppressed and holds them back from professional accomplishment and personal happiness.

What to do: Never let negativity take hold in your company. Immediately and privately confront any employee who makes negative remarks in front of others. Allow a forum for justifiable complaints within a controlled atmosphere. Provide an open door to any employee issues. But discussions should always be done privately to minimize the impact on other employees and to allow you the time you need to assess the situation. Discourage negativity by encouraging positive suggestions. Let it be known early and often that you will entertain all positive thoughts on how to improve workplace operations.

Type #2: The Underperformers
Underperformers, too, can be easily identified. They have the capability, but not the desire, to do a good job. In the book Wake Up and Smell the Competition, they are described as “slackers.” These individuals only do the bare minimum, going through the motions of their jobs and never putting their heart and soul into their work. They will spend long hours on activities they enjoy—cleaning the storage area, for instance—but next to nothing on the critical tasks. They will never display a sense of urgency to help customers or anyone on their team.

Underperformers can also come in the form of people who are competent, punctual and responsible. They are the “underachievers.” They come in on time, take their coffee breaks and leave on time, regardless of deadlines and customer commitments. They will politely fix any problem a customer brings to them, but will rarely proactively contact a customer to find out how the project is going or if they need help getting their paperwork in on time so they can process payment. They are content with their merit raises, and neither complain about nor expect promotions, bonuses or exceptional performance ratings.

Another underperformer is the employee who refuses to adapt to changing conditions. These are employees who refuse to do things differently. Although they do not lack competency, their minds are like concrete—thoroughly mixed and permanently set. When faced with any type of change in their jobs, your top performers will roll up their sleeves and make it happen, but underperformers will not unless they are forced to do so.

What to do: The smart owner or manager will institute a regular “conference of work” in which each employee will briefly report on the tasks he or she is currently handling. This serves two purposes—keeping people informed and ensuring that each and every employee is handling important tasks.

Equally important, the smart owner or manager must react quickly and decisively to complaints of someone slacking off. Again, these concerns need to be handled confidentially and with tact, but they must be dealt with immediately.

Underperformers who are fearful of change or are afraid to achieve will benefit from training and support. This is something that all employees need—but to varying degrees. Be supportive and understanding, but also project the sentiment that this is not behavior that will be rewarded in the long run. If it continues, it will jeopardize the employee’s job.

Type #3: Conflict Creators
There are employees in every company who seem to thrive on creating unnecessary conflict. Sometimes they create conflict because of a personality clash. Regardless of the reason, they can cause tremendous problems for all involved. These employees cause anxiety, anger, intimidation, blame, resentment, morale problems and decreased productivity. Whether their conflict is with you, one of their co-workers or a customer, they cause the “4 D’s”—disharmony, disagreement, dissonance and disunity.

These employees are easy to identify. They always intensify problems, challenge decisions, make accusations to service technicians, display territorialism and even try power plays. If they are in management or supervisor positions, they often demonstrate favoritism, micromanage projects and talk down to (or even yell at) their subordinates.

What to do: Often these employees behave very subtly. They can create conflict with a look or a word. As an owner or manager, be very alert to determine where the conflict is developing and why. Keep in touch with your staff and encourage open communication. This will lead to discovery of conflicts and their source.

Develop High Contributors
For those who need to become greater contributors, work diligently to ignite the fire in them to put forth more effort. Try to turn difficult people around, and, while you may not always succeed, you will see the difference in your team. Don’t get so caught up in the inertia of your business that you fail to take action. Your other employees depend upon you to make sure your team is fully operational. That is the highest compliment you can give them.

Unfortunately, no matter what you do, you cannot be 100 percent effective with all employees. If you don’t see an improvement with negative people, slackers or those who refuse to change, give them a warning. Then, if you still don’t see any improvement, give them a stronger warning. After the third warning, if you do not see behavior change, have the courage to remove them from your team. This holds true even for those who are doing their best, but just cannot measure up.

It is not easy to correct performance with enough firmness to elicit positive behavior change and enough tact to protect egos. It requires people skills. Here’s a helpful rule of thumb: Whenever you need to correct someone in your material handling business, leave him or her with the feeling that they have been helped.

Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Help Problem Employees
Take action. Make the decision as soon as you detect there is a problem. Do it before his or her behavior becomes more deeply ingrained and harder to eradicate.

Maintain privacy. Ask to see the person in private. No one likes to be corrected in front of others.

Be positive. If possible, preface the conversation with a positive statement. When you begin a conversation with a negative statement, you immediately invite the person to put up his or her defenses.

Be specific. As you describe the results of his or her bad behavior, use specific examples of occurrences. A solid formula to use: Here’s how it is affecting me, here’s how it is affecting the team and here’s how it is affecting the customers.

Request solutions. Ask the employee for solutions and discuss them. “What do you think you can do to prevent this from happening?”

Offer help. Ask what you can do to help and how you can work together to improve their behavior or performance. Remind them that you want them to be happy on your team.

Don’t demand. Ask for cooperation; don’t demand it. Even though the person you must confront is a subordinate, it is never wise to demand that they change their behavior.

Evaluate progress. Agree on specific actions to be done, behaviors that should be avoided and a time frame to implement them. Then, set up another meeting to discuss progress.

Finish positively. When you are finished talking with the person, make sure that you maintain a positive working relationship.

Continue to coach. Continually coach your problem employees and recognize when you see positive changes. Remember to pat them on the back when you see improvement.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
Christine Corelli Meet the Author
Christine Corelli is president of Christine Corelli & Associates, located in Morton Grove, Illinois, and on the Web at www.christinespeaks.com.

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