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Dealing with problem staff: Should we rule by fear? By Annie Hayes

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Contract being signed
Problem staff usually fall into two categories, those with below average performance and those with consistently poor records of attendance, finding the best way to deal with these issues has been a topic of debate since the advent of the employee-employer relationship; in this feature Annie Hayes, HR Zone Editor reports on how HR professionals in the field are handling those that fail to tow the line.




Capability:
The official advice from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) is that workers should not normally be dismissed because of poor performance unless warnings and a chance to improve have been given. But if individuals are not prepared to work as required – as opposed to not being able to, the case is likely to be dealt with as misconduct.

HR Consultant, Quentin Colborn says that early intervention is the key: “Many times I’m approached to help deal with a problem person to be told, for example, that they have always been given a satisfactory rating on their performance appraisal.”

Bridging the gap between communicating expected standards of behaviour and the employee understanding what is required, seems to be the rule regardless of organisation, sector or location. Don Rhodes, a Consultant Advocate, working principally for the Otago Southland Employers’ Association in New Zealand believes that problems often originate from lack of communication between the parties:

“Whatever the problem, there must be a requirement somewhere determining that the employee is not performing to the standards required. And this is where most employers fall short in not spelling out just what is required of their employees, including as I put it, the “characteristics” that must be delivered in every job.”

“Whatever the problem, there must be a requirement somewhere determining that the employee is not performing to the standards required. And this is where most employers fall short in not spelling out just what is required of their employees, including as I put it, the “characteristics” that must be delivered in every job.”

HR Consultant, Quentin Colborn.

Rhodes says that handling problem employees without the appropriate performance standards clearly spelled out becomes more difficult for employers than needs be.

Training:
Managing expectations, for Colborn and Rhodes appears to be the key to preventing problems from spiralling out of control.

Iain Young, HR Manager of Cofathec Heatsave Ltd also says that in many cases training is not needed by the individual but by the manager:

“In my last organisation we had a significant absence problem, by training the managers in how to conduct return to work interviews and diplomacy procedures the absence was reduced over the next year to the value of some £100,000.”

Rhodes also agrees that much of the training that is required should be for the managers and not the employees. Managers he says should be trained to detail the performance standards that are required.

“This identification of opportunities must be an important part of any manager’s job performance. That means employees know clearly the boundaries in which they must operate and managers know clearly the results they must deliver. Success then for everyone.”

Absence:
In the case of unacceptable levels of absence there seems to be a division between how the public and private sector manage it.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2006 absence management survey, public service employers are much less likely than private sector organisations to use disciplinary procedures and to cite conduct as a reason for dismissal in their management of employee absence. Almost 90% of manufacturing and production employers’ policies on sickness absence refer to the disciplinary procedure, while only 74% of public service organisations’ policies do.

“In my last organisation we had a significant absence problem, by training the managers in how to conduct return to work interviews and diplomacy procedures the absence was reduced over the next year to the value of some £100,000.”

Iain Young, HR Manager of Cofathec Heatsave Ltd.

In contrast, public service organisations rely on capability procedures more than the other main sectors. About 80% of public service employers’ policies on absence refer to the use of capability procedures, compared to just 55% among manufacturing and production and 59% among private service employers.

Where the problem relates to ill health, the basic issue is whether the employer could be expected to wait any longer for the employee to recover. As well as whether the contract has been frustrated.

Long-term sickness issues aside, a key problem for many managers is curbing the rise of sickies and distinguishing between genuine and non-genuine absence. Peter Duckitt, HR Consultant advises tightening up on communication procedures and making it clear how frequent absences will be dealt with:

“Make it clear to everyone that you are concerned about absence levels and, because of this and recent changes in employment legislation relating to disciplinary procedures, you have decided to tighten up on warning procedures.”

So what happens when performance and absence standards are being flouted despite clear communications being in place? What are the next steps?

Disciplinary:
Young says that even when the capability route is followed there will come a point when the only option is to invoke the disciplinary process.

“In other circumstances the use of the disciplinary procedure is the shock that some people need to wake them up and get them performing to the company norms.”

Sue Beatt, a Learning and Development Consultant believes that the best way to stamp out bad behaviour is to threaten disciplinary action:

“We had a situation in my last company (retail pharmacy) where two members of shop staff had daggers drawn all the time. It created an atmosphere in the shop and as HR we were called in on at least two or three occasions. We had various conversations trying to point out the effect their behaviour had, about how they were maybe misinterpreting situations, about being professional, about not having to like each other but having to work together; all to no avail.

“It would improve for a day or two and then back to normal. The pharmacist (also a shop manager) was at the point of just walking out because it was making life so unpleasant for him. The situation was finally sorted when the area manager went in, sat them both down and made it clear that he could run the pharmacy without them, but not without a pharmacist, and if they didn’t sort themselves out he wouldn’t hesitate to employ the disciplinary procedure to get rid of both of them. I think it was the verbal equivalent of ‘banging their heads together’! It worked and they are now the best of friends again. Sometimes we just have to tell it like it is.”

Colborn agrees and says that managers have to be prepared to take risks especially where someone’s behaviour is having a highly negative effect on others. “The negative effect on those who are performing well is significant and if they feel others are getting away with it, their contribution may well diminish.”

” The negative effect on those who are performing well is significant and if they feel others are getting away with it, their contribution may well diminish.”

Quentin Colborn, HR Consultant.

Investigating the facts, however, does play its part. In a recent Any Answers posting, HR Zone member Michelle asked the community how to deal with a machine operator who they suspected of drinking at lunchtime. HR Consultant, Kathryn Aldred said: “My first reaction would be that if he has been seen entering a pub that doesn’t in itself mean he has been drinking alcohol. He may choose to go there because they serve good, cheap food. In this case I would have an informal chat with him to investigate a little deeper and if necessary spell out the risks of alcohol and machinery.”

Colborn says that it’s situations such as these which should deem the disciplinary process to be a second resort.

“Many problems can be addressed by simply talking to people – often this not only resolves the problem but also the individual concerned may be happy to have been spoken to so that they can get things on an even keel. Always document what’s going on and the conversations you have – it’s amazing what you may need to turn to later.”

It would appear that managing problem staff is dealt with most effectively by clearly communicating required performance and attendance levels. Managers have their part to play in effectively getting the messages across and making it clear what the consequences will be for those that fail to meet the standards.

If taking the softly, softly approach fails the disciplinary process is the natural back-up but should only be used as a last resort. As Don Rhodes concludes:

“I have no doubt that it is imperative managers/leaders deal first of all with each set of circumstances as necessary. In other words, there should not be ‘one-solution-fits-all’ when dealing with or to problem staff. After all, they may well be problem staff because they have not been managed correctly. When all this appears to have failed, then we have the discipline process, to bring the matter to a conclusion.”


3 Responses

  1. Find out, and deal with, the root cause of the problem
    There is always a good reason why people are “problems”. Here is an example.

    A few years ago I was asked to work with a man whose performance was unacceptable. He was bullying and threatening his staff.

    When I listened to him, I found out that he had a history of being bullied by his parents because he was partially deaf and when he did not respond, they hit him. When I told him he did not deserve this, this big man’s eyes filled with tears.

    Even two years afterwards, he and his boss reported that he was a changed man being much more gentle and relaxed in stressful situaions. I think he acted aggressively because he unconsciously anticipated being bullied and this was the way to head it off.

    The whole process took just two afternoons. It was a very cost-effective piece of work.

    Something like this is often underneath “problem staff”. You can help your managers listen well enough to deal with these issues themselves, which is the best way or you can use a professional to do the job for you.

    Best wishes

    Nick Heap

    [email protected]

  2. senior staff with poor attendance
    We have an senior member of staff who is continually off sick despite being told by doctors etc that nothing in particular is wrong with him.When the employee does attend work his performance is below satifactory and is creating a negative atmosphere. The biggest problem posed is that until know he has been given no warnings etc as his relationship with the director has been on a mates type of level. It has been realised that this has to change but how do implement the change from mate to serious boss who will possibly have to go down a disciplinary route.

  3. Train the managers also
    I would look also at how well managers and supervisors can deliver training to their subordinates first. People learn at different rates, so a “poor performer” may be someone who doesn’t really understand the job due to poor training

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