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Coping with a problem 'child' at the office

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

(Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

(Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

When Vivian Paley began her career as a kindergarten teacher she started to notice some of the most badly behaved children in her class were often the ones with few friends.

She wondered how she could help.

“Some of the children get all the breaks, while others get pushed off to the sidelines and remain there, unloved,” said Paley, who is now retired, aged 85- years-old and living in Chicago. “But it didn’t need to be that way. A child who has a friend is a child who’s willing to learn and listen.”

So Paley instituted a rule: no student could exclude another child from playtime. Instead of the usual approach of trying to fix the troubled student, her strategy suggested adjusting the environment so that the child could fit in better. Paley eventually turned her discoveries into a series of books that have been used by teachers across the globe for four decades.

That elementary lesson is now being transferred to offices, too, where good human resources practices call for abandoning the idea that managers can cure a problem employee.  

It might seem a lot easier to just start again with a new member of the team. But sacking a troubled employee likely means an exhaustive search, a hit to staff morale, and potentially a loss of productivity while the position stays open, and then training the new hire. And after all that, it’s still a gamble whether you’ll be better off.

Instead, the prevailing thought nowadays is that managers can normally come up with ways to alter the work environment or restate goals in a way that helps an employee get through troubled waters.

“If you start off thinking it’s the employee’s fault alone and you’re going to fix it, things are probably not going to go so well,” said Dave Hofmann, professor at University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler Business School and chair of the organisational behaviour department.

Instead of figuring out what’s wrong with the employee, look at your own behaviour first, Hofmann suggests. Yes, the problem could be you. Maybe you haven’t made the goals clear enough or rewarded good performance in the past.

Once you’ve done some self-reflection, try to figure understand what’s driving an employee’s bad behaviour. Your key questions: does the person really understand what they’re supposed to do and have the skills to complete the tasks?

Starting a conversation with the employee is the next step. Keep the talk short and specific. Avoid drawing your own conclusions about why they might be having trouble.

Of course, there is a chance the weekly report might always be filed late because the employee really is lazy. But maybe the answer is simply that you haven’t expressed how important it is to get it in on time. Or you might just find that you haven’t prepared them enough to take on an important task. That could mean the fix is fairly simple — it might be time for some training or for a mentor who could help your employee kick bad habits.

Change in practice

At marketing agency, The Integer Group, based in Colorado, dealing with problem employees has become something of a science. The 1,200-employee firm runs a “boot camp” three to four times a year that teaches skills such as how to broach a difficult conversation with a subordinate employee. Integer also matches new managers with mentors who will walk them through how to handle talks with troubled workers.

“Every manager knows who their partner is and knows who to talk to when they have a difficult situation,” said Tracy Tobin, Integer’s vice president of human relations.

Those mentors are often employees in the HR department who have a set questions on hand, ready to help managers understand how the problem with their employee arose in the first place.

“You have to look at the root cause,” Tobin said. “You can’t just think it’s time to replace the employee. It’s like changing the oil in your car and ignoring that the problem is the engine.”

Global courier company FedEx Corp issues an anonymous questionnaire annually to help identify issues that could lead to disgruntled workers. Department heads with poor results are expected to address any issues raised in the survey within six weeks.  As a direct result of the feedback, FedEx added vision care to company benefits and developed individual development plans for managers. 

Paley, the former teacher, believes it is incumbent on managers―and teachers ―to adjust to those in their care who aren’t thriving.

Because after Paley banned excluding anyone from playtime not only did the troubled children learn more effectively, but the group as a whole performed better.

“It’s logical and moral for the group to make adjustments,” Paley said. “As teachers, we can change little things that can make a big difference in whether a child can learn.”

It’s easy to apply that same logic to the workplace. First, help your department’s troubled employee turn things around. Then watch your entire team improve.

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