Discipline with Care

Oct. 14, 2022

Learn how to effectively deal with problem behavior from employees before it gets out of hand. 

Every shop has dealt with that employee before. The one who is unproductive, disrupts workflow, and acts like a child a lot of the time.

Not every employee who acts this way does so for the same reasons, but Karen Young, president and founder of HR Solutions, says the framework she uses to help companies deal with employees who are acting childishly has remained fairly consistent throughout her 30 years in human resources. 

Conversations about poor performance are always a little uncomfortable and can be challenging, but Young says having those will help improve the productivity of your shop and the chemistry of your team.

Step 1: Clearly define expectations.

The first step in identifying problem behavior, Young says, is to make sure job expectations are clearly defined.

Often, poor performance and employees acting out is caused by a misunderstanding of what they’re expected to do. If they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing or feel that they aren’t performing well, that embarrassment could cause them to act out.

“Most times, employees misbehave or don't do what we're expecting because, frankly, they don't have the exact same idea as we do about what's expected,” Young says. “I highly recommend always starting a conversation with ‘Hey, I just want to make sure we both understand exactly what the company expects of you.’”

You should outline what an employee’s job responsibilities and duties are, as well as the consequences of not fulfilling those expectations.

Step 2: Name the behavior.

Though they might be acting like a child, most of the time a problem employee is an adult. That may sound obvious, but Young says it’s critical to remember that and to treat your employees as such when confronting them about problem behavior.

“It's understandable for a manager to get frustrated, but don't lower yourself to their level,” Young says. “Be direct. I would actually call them out and say, ‘You're acting like a child, and we need to have a business conversation about that.’” 

Stay cool and let them know that it isn’t personal. It’s about their performance as an employee of your shop.

Step 3: Ask questions genuinely.

Accusing someone of bad work or behaving childishly, no matter how correct or in the right you may be for doing so, will put an employee on the defensive.

Letting them know that it isn’t a personal accusation is a good start to diffusing a potentially contentious situation, but going a step further and giving them an active role in the conversation can help smooth things over even more.  

Ask basic questions such as, “Can you help me understand?” It opens the conversation up, and it will allow your employee to actively reflect on their behavior and make an effort to explain why they’re acting that way. 

“All of a sudden, you'll see that your employee is a little less defensive because you’re asking for his or her input,” Young says. “That then allows you as a leader to let them know you appreciate that and diffuse things even more.”

Step 4: Act with empathy.

Employees don’t exist in a vacuum, and though it’s good to try and separate work life and personal issues, that isn’t always feasible.

Sometimes a problem employee could be having problems of their own, and that could be a primary cause of their behavior. Though you may not be able to help solve an employee’s personal troubles, at least letting them know that you care and are there to support them could go a long way in improving their performance.

“Sometimes, negative emotions manifest themselves in poor performance and bad behavior,” Young says. “Instead of focusing on the temper tantrum or negative behavior itself, try to focus on why an employee reacted that way in that situation.”

Young says most employees want to do good work, and allowing them the opportunity to address problems—whether they be in the workplace or not—that are preventing them from doing that good work can help resolve problem behaviors before they get out of hand. 

Step 5: Follow through on the hard conversations.

If all other avenues have been exhausted and problem behavior still persists, Young says managers have to follow through on the consequences that they outlined as part of step one. 

“At the end of the day, unacceptable behavior is exactly that: unacceptable.” Young says. “If there is no change then there will be consequences. That’s where a lot of managers fall through.”

Letting go of an employee is always a tough conversation, regardless of how much of a headache they can be. But having an employee with problematic behavior can set a bad precedent with your other employees if the current worker causing trouble keeps getting away with it.

“It is really important to have those courageous conversations with our employees and then follow through on what we say we're going to do,” Young says. “It's not a threat. It's following through.”

No matter how difficult the conversation can be, sometimes letting someone go is the best thing you can do for your shop, your other employees and for yourself.

“We need to retain our good employees, and if we are letting bad behaviors and poor-performing employees rule the roost, we're doing a massive disservice to our good employees,” Young says. “Take a little bit of pain out of respect for your good employees.”

About the Author

Noah Brown

Noah Brown is a freelance writer and former senior digital editor for 10 Missions Media, where he facilitated multimedia production several of the company's publications.

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