Difficulty Setting: Workplace Disciplinaries

The pressures we face as a line manager or running a team can be varied and complex, none more so than when we are dealing with personal issues in the workplace. It appears to be a staple of the workplace environment, one employee who is either not as skilled as the others, or a member of staff who is very difficult to get along with. And this doesn’t just impact on your colleagues’ ability to work properly, it will impact on you because you are spending a lot of time and energy on trying to diffuse the problem. Or you are trying to improve their skills, and there will come a time when you may have to bite the bullet and let them go, which is a difficult decision to come to, and one that mustn’t be taken lightly. Before it gets to that, are you making sure that you are dealing with the situation as best as you can?


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The first skill that any manager can benefit from fine-tuning is listening. In a situation where a difficult employee is causing ructions for everyone, it can be easier to tune them out somewhat, to ignore the problem or just not pay any attention. This shows that we have already decided what we think of them, that they are a lost cause, and this is not particularly fair. In fact, we should go the other way, and we need to get attentive when someone is sticking out for the wrong reasons. Listening is understanding, and we need to understand why someone is not pulling their weight or struggling. That way we can begin to address the problem and provide the appropriate help, which could be something simple, depending on the problem.  But how can we know how to fix the problem if we don’t pay attention in the first place? Which is why active listening could be the one skill to solve all of your potential work relationship issues.

While many managers know the importance of professionalism, there are sometimes those who are tempted by the opportunity to promote office gossip. This isn’t intentional, but some people purely look to bad-mouth the problem rather than take steps to solve it. This can create a culture of bullying or make the party feel isolated. This is not only unprofessional, but it can cause a major distrust of you and your ability to lead a team. It also will lead to an environment awash with back-stabbing and toxicity, which are all completely pointless when it comes to productivity and promoting a great working culture. Being blindsided by gossip is something that should be refined to the schoolyard and has no place in business.

Taking steps to improve how a person is doing their job is being proactive, yet many managers won’t make the leap and actually communicate how the person is doing, preferring to complain to anyone that listens. Giving feedback to someone who is underperforming is a very difficult skill, yet it is an essential component of being a manager, and it must be done. There are firms such as Ellis Whittam who train people on various aspects of managerial behavior that will aim to make giving feedback a much easier approach. It is all to do with making sure that the person receiving the feedback is not being backed into a corner. It is a difficult line to tread. Ultimately we need to tell the person how they are doing but we can’t offend or make comments that will get them to be defensive. One of the best methods is not to tell the person how they are behaving, for example, “you have a bad attitude,” but instead, what they have been doing to warrant this meeting. For example, “I have noticed that you have been making negative comments about Person X to Person Y.” This is a more definite comment to make to the person instead of giving a general statement about their demeanor. While the choice of language is still difficult to hear, it does two things, it gives a direct statement to the offending party about their behavior, and it shows them exactly what you would like them not to do. It is a skill that can feel difficult to put across in a manner that is productive, but it is something that warrants practice.




The next thing you need to do in every part of dealing with a difficult employee is to take notes. Document everything. This is the only way to develop a good paper trail if you are looking to get rid of a difficult employee. If you don’t document anything, then you have no proof of the offending person’s behavior, and it makes for a difficult process to get rid of them. If you are having general problem’s with an employee’s skill, write down the areas they are struggling in. Making notes of the key points over a period of time helps you to correct the problems. Many managers don’t make notes of the person’s behavior or skills because they feel that they are being too negative about the employee, and it’s almost if that by not writing down any of the key issues the problem may resolve itself. Again, this is not dealing with the problem head-on. Even if you are able to solve the problem, the documentation can just go to the back of a filing cabinet and not be discussed. But if the problems do arise again, you have a handy reference.     

A good manager is nothing but consistent, and this is something you need to practice across all areas of the business. Managers can sometimes feel the peer pressure to join in with a joke in a team, and sometimes they will call the joke maker out on it and ask them to get back to work. This is a fine line, unfortunately. And while it is certainly easier to improve employee morale by being jovial and personable, it can only really work in certain circumstances. If you set a deadline for a report to be filed, then you need to either be okay with it being late or not be okay. You cannot be okay with it sometimes. If you lay down the law from the start and state how important it is that a report is filed on time, you are setting a baseline for what you expect from your employees. This scenario will also highlight the potential workers who are below-par. If you set standards that you strictly adhere to yourself, this will set a precedent. It also will help achieve consistency in the team.




If you get to the point where the offending party is unable to improve on the issue, then you need to become more specific in your dealings. In other words, you need to state the consequences of their actions if nothing changes. By showing the outcome of their actions if nothing changes, it becomes rooted in reality. If you ask someone to change their behavior without giving them a reason, then why would you expect them to change? A stock phrase would consist of a positive sentiment, like “I still believe you can make this change” and then “if you don’t make the change by X, here is what is going to happen” and then whatever that may be, from being put on an official warning to being let go from the company.

The big thing that you need to control, as a manager, is your emotions. The trick to being a good manager in these circumstances is being impartial, even to yourself. If you think throughout the whole process of getting someone to be better skilled in their work that they are a lost cause, this will impact on your ability to help them, whether intentional or not. The same goes for over positive thinking, by showering someone with mental praise. Either way, you are not helping the person. The best stance to take is being as close to the truth as possible, and being accurate in your assessment of the situation will enable you to make better decisions for the good of the team. If it has got to the point where you have no option but to let the person go, the first thing to bear in mind is to make sure that all the processes have been followed to the letter. You need to speak to HR and communicate your whole journey if you are looking to let this person go because a missed process can only cause major headaches for you, the HR department and the company. Once this has been cleared, then the final point lies with you. You need to be the person that lets them go. There is no point in delegating it or making excuses. Managers have to do the difficult things as much as anything else, and if the problem is resolved, and you are proved wrong, and this person has turned it around, this can be a positive character building exercise for you too.


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