Dealing with difficult employees

Jan. 1, 2020
A major part of being a sound supervisor or manager is the ability to interact, direct and communicate with all employees. It's imperative to master these special talents to get the most out of your people. Some employees will be easy to work with. O
management employee management dealing with employees business management automotive aftermarket leadership repair shop management repair shop repair shops When I ran a shop, I often felt like a big part of my day, as a supervisor, was to act as a babysitter. I'm sure most of you have felt the same way. In fact, I've heard many others in similar positions in the collision industry, and in other vocations or lines of work, describe themselves this way. I suppose it's because this occurs in a typical work environment on any given day.

As I progressed in my career, I began to refocus the babysitter description to that of a teacher and leader. Baby sitters don't wield much power. For the most part, they just try to keep the peace and follow simple directives. On the other hand, supervisors set policy, control productivity, train, solve problems, direct workflow and keep the peace — and that's usually before lunch.

Most supervisors have a huge list of duties for which they're responsible, especially in a busy repair shop. The talents and abilities most repair shop managers display are amazing, even though they don't get the respect they deserve from people outside our industry. A talented repair shop manager can run any business.

A major part of being a sound supervisor or manager is the ability to interact, direct and communicate with all employees. It's imperative to master these special talents to get the most out of your people. Some employees will be easy to work with. Others will try your patience endlessly.

We Are All Different

Understand everyone is unique. How we act or react to any situation is based on our individual makeup. Some people respond to direct orders; others don't. It's part of your job to understand this fundamental reality and use it to your advantage.

I don't think anyone responds well to a direct order unless you're in the military and you have to. The old adage about attracting more bees with honey is true. People will respond better to a directive calmly communicated with respect than one that's barked.

Understanding what type of approach to take with each person will help you delegate duties for your staff better. Usually, supervisory people master this skill while working up to the managerial level. If you're not good at it, keep trying. It's an extremely important part of your manager's tool kit. Unfortunately, the only way to get better is to practice. Whenever you speak to one of your employees, carefully gauge his or her response to the way you talk to them. The more you do this, the more you'll begin to see a pattern in their behavior. Understanding their response to the way you direct them will help you use the more suitable methods more often.

Set expectations

The best way to resolve a confrontation with a difficult employee is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The best way to do this is to make sure all employees know the rules of the game up front. Employees want direction from you as a supervisor. The more concise direction and instruction you provide, the better they will follow.

1. Create job descriptions for every position in the shop. Make sure these descriptions are detailed, and include all the functions you expect your employees to perform as part of their jobs. Think about this and make sure you cover all details. Your employee may not understand what your expectations of him are without these. This misunderstanding could lead to needless friction later on.

Once you've completed these, review them with each employee individually and ask them to sign a document indicating they understand what is expected of them. It's human nature to aspire to an expectation if it's clearly defined. Once your employees know what you expect of them, they'll try their best to do it.

2. Set up and follow a progressive discipline regimen. Occasionally, employees will stray from the path. If they do, you must correct them, respectfully, right away. Make sure everyone knows how the discipline program works. Suggest something like this: For a first offense, a verbal warning is issued. For a second offense, a written warning is issued. For a third offense, it's a day off without pay, and so on. Whatever you determine, put it on paper and make sure every employee receives a copy. Again, have them sign a document that states they've received a copy and understand it. By following this process, you're setting expectations for all aspects of the job.

3. Create standard operating procedures for all aspects of the shop. From how to answer the phone to where to place finished files — everything. Again, this will help everyone understand their job duties and your expectations of them. Do the same in the shop. By clearly defining jobs and duties, you're trying to prevent employees from becoming difficult to handle. Building the proper environment will go a long way toward doing this.

4. Treat every employee with respect and dignity. It doesn't matter what level they are. Your first year tech deserves the same respect you give your Master techs. Make certain your people understand you expect the same behavior from them toward fellow employees. You have to set the tone and build an environment of trust, teamwork and understanding. The rules have to be the same for everyone.

5. Once the rules are put in place, make sure they're followed. All too often a process is defined and implemented but never properly managed or maintained.

All these suggestions are great ways to prevent one of your employees from becoming the typical problem employee, but what if you already have a monster?

Resolving the problem

Whenever I'm involved in a situation involving an irate or uncooperative employee, I always try to remember there may be other problems in the person's life causing the negative behavior. Maybe a loved one is sick, or he or she is having money or addiction problems. Usually something is going on in their life that's causing hem to behave more negatively than normal. If you understand the root cause of the stress, you'll be able to resolve the issue more effectively.

When confronting an issue with an employee, invite them into a private place to discuss the issue. Don't discipline him in front of other employees. That only creates a negative environment with the other employees and won't give you or the person you're speaking with the privacy needed to openly discuss issues and resolutions.

No matter how difficult it may be, stay calm. People will begin to emulate your mood when they're in a discussion. If you're animated or agitated, they'll follow suit. If you remain calm, they'll calm down.

Be direct and firm, but don't become argumentative. Tell the person exactly what's wrong with their behavior and explain why it's unacceptable. You're in a position to wield power. Make certain by your demeanor you're confident in your ability and decision-making prowess. Your people shouldn't fear you, they should respect you, but respect must be earned.

At this point, you can refer back to the job descriptions in place and the progressive discipline programs you implemented earlier. By referring to the law you've enacted, your employees will know they've crossed the line as soon as they do so. They'll expect some form of discipline. It won't be a surprise.

Make sure you listen to the employee's side of the story and be open to it. He or she may feel he has a good reason to act the way he or she did. If you listen to their side of the issue, you can understand and explain why their behavior was unacceptable in a calm and rational way.

Some employees are just like oil and water — they don't mix and never will. Try to put a physical distance between employees who don't get along. Keep them separated from one another by putting their work spaces at opposite ends of the shop. Realistically, everyone isn't going to like one another. Your problem employee might not be a problem at all. He or she just might be in an uncomfortable situation that brings about the unwanted behavior.

The main thing to remember is you have to stand by your convictions and make sure everyone in the shop knows you will. Don't allow bad behavior. If you've tried to be rational and fair with a disruptive employee and tried all the progressive discipline tactics but still aren't getting through to them, let them go — even if it happens to be your most productive employee.

It will cost you much more in the end if you keep an employee who's too negative or disruptive. They can become a cancer that slowly erodes the foundation of your business. I've seen one bad employee infect an entire shop to the point it had to be closed. In this economy, it's already difficult enough to keep your head above water. Don't allow a distraction that can be controlled to cause these issues.

A difficult employee can cause you to lose customers, other employees and even your business. Command respect. Show strength in your convictions, be fair and communicate effectively with your employees. You'll grow, and your employees will, too.

Kevin Mehok is the CEO of and a current board member for several other companies. He has nearly 30 years of experience in the automotive aftermarket.

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