Train or Terminate? How to Deal with a Difficult Employee

Sometimes, despite all of your best efforts, hiring mistakes happen. Whether those mistakes make themselves apparent right away or it takes years to manifest, dealing with a toxic employee is never easy. Should you invest more into trying to turn things around? Or should you cut bait and run? Will keeping the employee help or harm your practice morale?

These aren’t simple questions to answer, but they’re critical to your future success. Here are a few expert tips to make deciding which path to choose a little bit easier.

Typical Poor Employee Behavior

What are the signs that might indicate you’ve got a difficult team member on your hands? Let’s take a look:

  • Complaining
  • Gossiping
  • Criticizing or exaggerating mistakes made by others
  • Disrespectful comments
  • Passive aggressive behavior
  • Arguing and/or refusing to compromise
  • Slacking off or not pulling his or her weight
  • Refusal to adhere to instructions or direction from management

These types of behaviors are not only challenging to you from a leadership perspective, but they can put a huge drain on the morale and productivity of your entire staff. This can further trickle down to clients, which can lead to retention issues. In other words, these things are never good for business. So, here’s how to deal.

First, assess the situation.

Before taking any drastic measures, you should first evaluate the individual situation at hand. If the employee in question was never a problem in the past but is suddenly exhibiting one or more of the behaviors above, it could be worth exploring. For instance, he or she may be feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated. Or, there could be something going on in his or her personal life that is spilling over into the workplace.

Sitting down with the employee and discussing the behavior one-on-one may be enough to get to the bottom of what’s causing the issue. From there, you can take the next step, whether it’s alleviating some of the workload, offering more flexibility to deal with personal things, etc. You don’t want to lose a good employee to a temporary situation that’s fixable. For those with an ongoing pattern of negativity, however, you’ll need to take further action, as follows.

Set appropriate policy.

If you haven’t already done so, establishing, implementing and communicating a formal practice policy can help pinpoint and eliminate unwanted staff behaviors. For instance, having a strict no-gossiping policy will ensure that your staff understands what type of internal interactions are and are not acceptable. It will also provide you with a solid foundation upon which to move forward, either with discipline, training or termination.

Determine disciplinary action.

Your formal policy will help you follow the appropriate disciplinary steps and ensure that you handle things in a way that is compliant. Know specifically what steps to take and at which point in the process to do so. A typical example of disciplinary action workflow includes the following:

  • Informal discussion
  • Verbal warning
  • Written warning
  • Second/final written warning
  • Suspension without pay
  • Demotion
  • Decrease in hours or pay
  • Final warning
  • Termination

Documenting and following these steps will set expectations and keep you out of legal hot water.

Discuss issues in private.

Addressing toxic behavior shouldn’t be done in front of the entire staff, unless it’s the entire staff that’s the problem (which is typically not the case). Instead, discuss your concerns with the employee in question in a private setting where you won’t be interrupted. This prevents embarrassment and facilitates a more positive, productive and respectful conversation.

Present a solution.

If you determine that your problem employee is worth retaining, it’s up to you to determine the next steps in turning a negative situation around. This may include additional internal training, ongoing coaching, external continuing education or professional development opportunities, etc. Be specific about the approach you’d like to take in order to turn things around and determine a timeline to set expectations. For instance, let the employee know you expect to see improvement over the next three months.

Monitor progress accordingly.

Don’t just send your employee to a seminar and think he or she is good to go. Monitor progress with whatever course of action you’ve implemented. Reconvene regularly to discuss how things are going and get a feel for whether the employee is on target to achieve the desired goal or if a change in direction might be warranted.

Know when it’s time.

When a problem employee fails to meet the expectations for resolving his or her toxic behavior, it can drag the entire practice down. In situations such as this, it’s often necessary to cut ties and move on. Present it to the team member as an opportunity to move onto something that makes them happier and more content. After all, who wants to work in an environment where they are miserable?

In any case, making this final decision isn’t always easy, but sometimes it’s in everybody’s best interest. At the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for your team, your clients and your business and sometimes letting a toxic employee go is the only way to do so.