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Problem Employees or Problem Managers?

Hire the best. Pay them fairly. Communicate frequently. Provide challenges and rewards. Believe in them. Get out of their way, and they’ll knock your socks off.

~Mary Ann Allison
When I ask managers what their biggest challenge is, it seems like they always say the same thing: problem employees. This is something every business and organization struggles with. 
Many managers blame the employees, but in my experience, it is more often a case of the manager inadvertently encouraging—sometimes even rewarding—bad behavior than it is a case of a “bad employee.”
Now, before I get a ton of notes saying I have lost it—or even worse, that I never had it—let me explain what I mean.
In most cases, new staff comes into a new job wanting to do well and be a good employee. I have never heard anyone say, “I am going to take this job so I can be a bad employee.” On the contrary, most staff joins your team with high hopes and aspirations. 
Having said that, however, we know problem employees exist. So if most new employees come in wanting to do well and be great at their job, what happens? 
I think two things happen. Firstly, the employee has some trait they either cannot control or choose not to control. Secondly, management ignores or rewards the problematic trait by failing to address it. 
For example, suppose an employee has a tendency to be late. In the beginning, he or she shows up on time and everything is going fine. Eventually, however, the old habit kicks in, and the employee starts coming in late more regularly.
So often, when these situations arise, managers ignore the problem and hope it will go away—which it never does. What these managers do not realize is that their failure to take action is rewarding the bad behavior. Without meaning to, they are telling the employee it is okay to be late. 
Tardiness might be a small issue compared to others, but once you let an employee slide when they break a rule—even if it is just a small one—more problems begin to develop. They start to feel as though they are no longer being managed, and as the old cliché goes, the prisoners start to run the prison. 
In cases where managers do address the issue with the employee, they usually wait too long for the correction to stick. Either the bad behavior has become habitual or the employee just does not understand why the behavior is suddenly a problem when no one said a word about it for months.
What it boils down to is that ignoring problem behaviors allows them to grow larger and larger. Now these behaviors may be related to new employees or changes in behavior from existing employees. The only way to stop bad behavior is to take action to correct it as soon as it is noticed. This communicates to the employee that the behavior will not be tolerated. Of course, the same rules must be consistently applied to all staff. 
Now go out and make sure you have a process in place to address detrimental behavior when it is first noticed. This is the only way to stop the escalation and ensure it is not repeated.
You can do this.
Published: June 5, 2015

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Jerry Osteryoung

Jerry Osteryoung is a consultant to businesses—he has directly assisted over 3,000 firms. He is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University. He was the founding Executive Director of the Jim Moran Institute and served in that position from 1995 through 2008. His latest book, coauthored with Tim O’Brien, “If You Have Employees, You Really Need This Book,” is a bestseller on Amazon. Email Jerry @ jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com

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