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A leadership nightmare

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Managing difficult employees was one of the topics at the 2012 Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show in Chicago.

Brian Horn | January 23, 2012

When executive coach Rosemary Monahan used to work in corporate America, she had her fair share of challenging employees. A couple of them were great workers, but were always showing up late. And it wasn’t until she actually asked them about it that she realized they had good reasons – one had a transportation issues and the other had a special needs child, which provided for unpredictable mornings.

So Monahan worked out special arrangements with the employees allowing them to be 15 minutes late.
“Part of our roles as managers is to make sure our employees are successful,” said Monahan, president of Improve-ization.

Monahan told the story as part of her presentation, “Turnaround: Managing the Difficult Employee,” at the 2012 Mid-American Horticultural Trade Show in Chicago, which took place Jan 18-20.

Monahan said the biggest issue managers face when dealing with employees is just that – they delay in confronting the problem.

“We wait too long, and then we decide to act,” she said. “(Managers) hope it will just go away.”
Monahan said only about 5-10 percent of a workforce can be difficult, but that can take up 90 percent of your time.
But not confronting a difficult employee can have a negative impact on your entire organization, including top employees leaving. She added you have to explain to the difficult employee how their actions are affecting the organization, and why they need to change.

“’Because I said so’ doesn’t work,” she said.

Sometimes employees (and clients for that matter) have no idea they are a problem. When Monahan had a consulting business, she was hearing from employees about a client who was very abusive to the staff, but when Monahan met with him, he was on his best behavior.

So, she couldn’t do anything about it until she witnessed it herself because she wanted to avoid a “he said, she said” situation. One day, she snuck out of her office and saw the client “filleting” a secretary. After speaking with the client, he said he was under stress and had no idea he was being rude.

“I said, ‘I appreciate you are under stress, but there is a certain code of conduct here.’ My approach was to help, but also send a clear message that this is not acceptable,” she said.

Monahan said it normally takes between 30 and 45 days for a behavior to change, so it’s important to confront the problem and then set up a time table. You should also check in once a week and update the employee on their progress, and be complimentary on the areas where they are doing better. Also, deal with the specific problem and don’t make every meeting a review of everything they do wrong.

“If they are a valuable employee, you want to help them succeed,” she said. But it’s important to get all the facts. “The worst thing we can do is make a uniformed decision,” she said.

But, there are some employees that are lost causes, and you may want to fire them. Certain actions, such as theft or violence, are grounds for immediate dismissal. But, if they are just a challenge, and you don’t see improvement in the timetable you’ve set, you may want to part ways with the employee.

“Sometimes letting an employee go is an advantage and gift to the employee,” she said.

Ultimately, a difficult employee may also be the result of bad leadership by you.

“If you are a leader,” she said “and aren’t setting the bar really high and being a good role model … there’s no surprise there are challenges.”

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