Dealing with TroublemakersFriday, December 3rd, 2010
Do you have a troublemaker in your organisation? Of course not. Everything in your workplace is sweetness and light. But just in case you have a colleague in another organisation who is saddled with a difficult employee, this is what you tell him or her.
First of all, recognise that the problem will not just disappear. Troublemakers usually are quite content where they are and so will not move on to burden another employer. They will just carry on causing trouble until they retire – unless, of course, you do something to sort out the problem.
Unfortunately your hints or looks of disapproval just will not work, and possibly you have assured yourself that it takes all sorts to make a world, every organisation has a troublemaker and you just have to put up with him or her. But that is nonsense. There is no reason at all why anyone should come to work and be allowed to disrupt the place and cause resentment and a range of other ill feelings in management and colleagues.
Troublemakers interfere with the efficient running of any organisation, therefore they are a direct drain on resources, and their impact on work colleagues may drain off far more efficiency than you realise. The trouble caused may distract colleagues from their own work, cause them to make errors, and have them take wasteful evasive action to avoid becoming affected. Consider this: if as a result of a troublemaker’s actions ten team members work at only 95% efficiency, you will be losing the equivalent of half an employee’s productivity per week. If you fail to take effective action you will be letting your employer down, your own authority as a leader will suffer and resentment will set in among the more diligent members of your team.
You need to act, slowly but decisively. Begin by pointing out to the culprit that the disruptive action is unacceptable. Unfortunately this is more difficult if the behaviour has spread to other people. Nevertheless you should begin by talking in a friendly but firm way to the culprits. Talk to each one of them separately so that they do not draw support from each other. After all, you have a contract of employment with each one of them, not with the group, and it is individuals who are breaking their contract by behaving badly. Explain what he or she is doing and the trouble it is causing the business and, if appropriate, other people. The culprits may not realise what they are doing and may be quite unaware of the real impact of their actions on the organisation and on their colleagues. Point out clearly what is unacceptable about their behaviour and that it constitutes a breach of their contract. Do not accept responses that other people do not mind or that the disruptive behaviour is harmless. You are perfectly entitled, indeed required, to set high standards and demand that employees work to them.
Ask the individual troublemakers why they behave in this manner. Is it bravado, in which case what are they trying to prove? And is the workplace really the best place to prove it? Or are they seeking revenge against the employer, you, their colleagues or society as a whole? If so, why? The purpose of these questions is not to obtain meaningful answers – leave that to psychologists – but rather to have the people reflect on their behaviour and why they practise it. However during your discussion make absolutely clear what is the standard of behaviour that you require. Do not threaten them, but instead set an improvement programme, which may be, simply “I will review your behaviour at this time next week”. Finally offer any help that appears necessary, otherwise ask if the employee has any difficulties that he or she might want help with. This offers the employee an opportunity to say that he or she has problems at home, or is frustrated by new technology, or feels resentment about growing old. People who have personal problems or frustrations often work them out by means of disruptive behaviour, and the workplace is somewhere where they can practise it in relative safety. However, do not practise amateur psychology. If you believe that something like this is going on, have a word with HR staff or your boss who may be in a better position to do something it.
Before you let the employee go, summarise the result of the meeting in writing and read it back to the employee. State clearly and concisely what you are unhappy about, what is the standard that you require, what action either of you is going to take, and when the issue will be reviewed. Ideally get the employee’s agreement to the accuracy of this report and his or her commitment to work to the standard required.
From then on you should monitor the troublemakers. Keep your eye and ear on them as often as you can, note any disruptive actions, and carry out the monitoring programme as you indicated to them. If they do something particularly bad, however, point it out to them at the time. When you conduct the appointed review, refer to your notes and comment on what you have observed since. Ask the employee to respond. If the required standard has been met, state that clearly to the employee, show your relief, emphasise that it proves that he or she can perform satisfactorily, but insist this standard must now be maintained. From then on you should continue to monitor performance, correct any small deviations, but take disciplinary action if standards drop.
If by the time of the first review the disruptive behaviour has not stopped, or if subsequently it reappears, you should again point out where the employee is at fault, but this time give an informal warning. This must include a clear statement of the standard required, the word “warning”, and an indication of what is likely to happen if the employee fails to improve satisfactorily. Confirm this in a note to the employee both to safeguard yourself and to ensure that he or she fully understands the seriousness of the situation. From then on follow your disciplinary procedure which may entitle management, if there is inadequate improvement, to give either a formal or a final warning. However be sure to read your disciplinary procedure before taking things further and make sure that any subsequent actions are taken in a formal disciplinary hearing managed by an appropriate executive.
The ultimate sanction is, of course, dismissal. This may seem an extreme reaction to a bit of horseplay, but you agree a contract with new employees whereby for a stated reward they commit to join a team and work towards achievement of necessary business objectives. If they do not commit themselves wholeheartedly you should give them opportunity and any necessary help to improve. But if they cannot or will not commit and instead cause trouble, they are failing in their contractual obligations and your duty is to remove them from the team that they are disrupting.