How to Deal with a Poor Employee or a Lousy Boss

Bill Abbate

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Have you ever worked with a difficult employee or for a difficult boss? Do you have one now? What can you do about it, if anything? Let's take a look at a few things experience can teach us. Please note this is generic advice consisting of personal opinions. If you have an HR department, it is always best to clear any strategies through them to ensure you are on the right side of the law. If there is no HR department, proceed cautiously and seek counsel.

Whether you have a difficult employee or boss, you first need to establish what the difficulty is. For much of my career, the difficult employees fell into only a few categories. They were:

  • Incompetence, poor performance
  • Not getting along with colleagues and customers
  • Immature and irresponsible
  • Insubordinate, breaking company rules
  • Dishonest
  • Absent or tardy often

As an employee, the issues I have seen with poor bosses typically come from their:

  • Attempting to micromanage
  • Being rude, belligerent, or downright nasty
  • Not being attentive to or caring about employees, largely ignoring them
  • Being indecisive and vague
  • Never being satisfied

While it would be easy to write a book on most of these items, let's tackle what I have found to be more common – poor performance of the employee and poor performance of the boss. Those instances where the two just don't get along well and neither has the courage to do much about it.

The poor employee

If you are the boss and are dissatisfied with an employee but can't seem to get rid of him or her, what can you do? The best thing is to come to a firm understanding of what it is you want them to do or how it is you want them to be.

The bad fit

If it's a matter of wanting them to perform in a certain way, ask yourself how clear you have been with them on what you want. As a boss, I have found it can be my fault for assuming they should know something, and they may even indicate they do, yet they don't. This is the simplest thing to clear up with an open discussion. They may be afraid to let you know they don't understand, or you may be too vague in what you want them to do. Either way, you can clear it up with an open and honest discussion. You can do this yourself with the employee or have a third party involved, such as HR or a coach. Regardless, why keep suffering and dragging it out!

If the issue is you have tried everything you can, and they just don't seem to be a good fit for the company, you may need to make your mind up to let them go. Hey, it happens to the best of us, so don't beat yourself up about it. Again, have an open and honest conversation with them as they likely feel the same way, and an amicable separation may come easier than you imagine. If you are not happy, it is doubtful they are happy, and you will be doing them a favor in the long run by letting them resign or letting them go.

The unproductive

If the employee is unproductive and you have tried everything, ask yourself if there is anything else you can try. I often find the boss has never had an open and honest discussion with the employee about their performance. Do you really expect the employee to know what to do by osmosis? You are doing them and yourself a disservice if this is the case. I have never let such an employee go that did not find a more suitable job. I even had one thank me a year later!

The 90-day policy

Here's the thing about an unproductive employee every boss should know. I wish someone had told me about this before I learned it the hard way. It would have saved me a lot of headaches over the years!

I firmly believe whoever came up with the three-month or 90-day evaluation period for a new employee was a genius! Within three months, you will know if a person is suitable for the position almost without fail. If they are not acceptable, the best thing you can do is replace them. Again, this is not just for your benefit but for theirs. Why should you or they be miserable because they aren't the right person for the job?

If they are a good performer, it's a no-brainer. If, however, they are adequate, you must decide if adequate is good enough for the position in the long term. As the boss, that is a decision only you can make, although it never hurts to ask some of the employee's peers what they think about the person before deciding. How they all work together is as important as anything else when it comes to productivity.

The lousy boss

Instead of calling the boss a poor boss, calling him or her a lousy boss is more fitting, don't you think? I was blessed during my career to have had some of the best bosses in the world and a couple that I thought were downright lousy! While we can't cover every type of boss here, let's focus on three basic types, those who are too involved, uninvolved, or just plain mean.

The micromanager

One thing about the micromanager type of boss is they usually get stuck where they are. This could be okay for them but bad for you if you work for one. One of the main things I found about people who micromanage or overmanage employees is they lack trust and rarely build trust with employees.

Many times, this comes from fear. Fear of how are viewed for the work performed, fear of someone not meeting their standards, fear from letting down their boss or the organization, fear of letting their guard down, and other such fears.

It could also be from a lack of confidence in people or in themselves. You may have a slight chance of winning them over if you can gain their confidence, but I wouldn't hold out too much hope. In the end, there is little likelihood they will change, so you must either accept their management style or find yourself another job.

The uninvolved or uncaring boss

This type of boss can drive some people up a wall (especially me!) When the boss just doesn't seem to care or is weak, you can do little more than try to win their favor. Provided you want to. Again the company will likely do nothing or little, so you are often better off finding another job unless you can live with their management style.

The rude boss

This is perhaps the worst kind of boss. Their rudeness can often come across as bullying and should never be allowed by a company in any case. Unfortunately, they exist and may even thrive in some work environments. As an employee, it may be best to leave the job as soon as possible. Will they last, or won't they? Who knows, so why take the chance they won't. I found it to be true more than not, especially if you attempt to go over their head, you will be the one losing the job, not them. It would be better to leave the job rather than put up with poor treatment.

Final words

Yes, you likely found a common theme in this article; if you are the boss, have an open and honest discussion. If you can overcome whatever the issue is good. If not, get rid of them. You will be doing yourself, your company, and them a favor when you do so.

If you are an employee in a difficult situation with a lousy boss, you can try to hang in there, or it may behoove you to find another job. Again, it's better for you to be happy and not miserable in a place where you spend a quarter of your life!

The great thing about all of this is whether you are the employee or the employee's boss, you get to choose what you do at the end of the day. Why not choose what is best for everyone in the long run!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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