Lousy Employees and Coworkers

Bill Abbate

Have you ever worked with a difficult employee or colleague? Do you have one now? What can you do about it, if anything? Let’s look at what experience can teach us.

The poor employee or colleague

When you have a problematic employee or colleague, it helps to understand them and their situation clearly. That may sound like one of those “duh” statements, but stick with me.

For much of my career, I found difficult employees fall into only a few categories, such as:

  • Poor performance — incompetence, laziness
  • Not getting along with colleagues, their boss, or customers
  • Immaturity and irresponsibility
  • Insubordination or breaking company rules
  • Dishonesty
  • Regular absence or tardiness

It would be possible to write many books about the above difficulties. Let’s tackle the over-arching issues and look at some tried and true ways to deal with poor employees and colleagues. We will break this into four parts as follows:

  • The bad fit
  • The unproductive
  • The colleague
  • Protecting the company from bad employees

The bad fit

If you expect someone to perform at a certain level or in a certain way, ask yourself: “How clear have I been with them on what I want and their expected outcomes?”

Having many employees and colleagues over the years, I have found it can be my fault for assuming the person knows what and how to do what they are to do. They may even confidently state they know what and how to do it. But what they think you want may not be what you expect.

The simplest way to ensure you are aligned is to have a clear and open discussion up front. Doing this can save much time and many headaches later.

They may be afraid to tell you they don’t understand because they don’t want you to think badly of them. Another possibility is you may be too vague in what you want them to do and the results you expect from them. Either way, you will benefit from clear, up-front communication. To ensure clarity, you can also involve a third party, such as HR, a mentor, a coach, or even a colleague. Otherwise, you can risk suffering from thinking they can read your mind!

When you have done all you can to ensure the employee has the information and tools to perform, and they just can’t seem to get it, they may be a bad fit for the company. This will most likely require you to let them go or transfer them to a job where they can perform.

Again, have an open and honest conversation with them, as they likely already know they are not a good fit, and an amicable separation may come easier than you think. If you are not happy, it is doubtful they are happy, and you will be doing them a favor in the long run if you let them resign or let them go.

The unproductive

If the employee is unproductive and you have tried everything, ask yourself if there is anything else you can do. I often find the boss has never openly and honestly discussed the performance expected with the employee. Do you really think the employee should know what you want by osmosis? If this is the case, You are doing them and the company a disservice.

When you are satisfied and there is nothing more you can do, consider letting them go so they can find a more suitable job. I once had a former employee call and thank me a year after he “voluntarily” resigned! He was doing well and said he would have never found such a great job if I hadn’t suggested he find another workplace.

Letting someone “voluntarily” resign helps them save face. It can be an effective way to eliminate an employee, especially in upper management. Would you rather say, “They fired me,” or “I resigned?” That is an easy choice for most of us.

What about a poor colleague?

When the problem employee is a colleague, talk with them before taking the issue over their head. If they understand what they should be doing but refuse to do their part, it may be time to speak with the boss, HR, or both.

Why put up with someone who refuses to do their part or cannot pull their weight? As an employee, we owe it to the company to intervene. The only case where this may be dicey is if they are a relative of the owner or connected to someone at a higher level. Yet you may be surprised at how much people may respond positively. You may wish to tread carefully, but you don’t have to allow their poor performance to affect yours.

You always have the option to accept the situation will never change, or you can seek employment elsewhere.

Protecting the company from bad employees

“Firing employees, that’s unfortunatelypart of doing business.” Paul Wolfowitz (1943-present)

Whatever you do, start every new employee out on the right foot by clearly communicating your expectations and the outcomes they are to produce. You will save yourself a lot of headaches later.

The 90-day policy

I firmly believe whoever devised the three-month or 90-day evaluation period for a new employee was a genius! 99% of the time, you will know if a person is suitable for the position within the first three months. 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 suffer because they aren’t the right person for the job?

If they are a good performer, it’s a no-brainer. If they are merely adequate, you must decide if they can grow and have the potential to perform better 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, as their input can be extremely helpful. How your employees work together is as important as anything else regarding productivity.

Establish team agreements

A final bit of wisdom I learned some years ago is to have every team of people working for you develop a team agreement. To create this agreement, have the team name the things that will help them work well together.

Make a quick list of bullet points, including such things as being on time, full participation, complete commitment, objectives/outcomes, and anything else the team members are accountable for. Get every member’s input and have them agree to abide by the team agreements. Also, ensure they are written down and posted where the members can see them. This simple exercise will help you overcome performance issues more effectively and onboard new team members smoothly.

Final thoughts

Hiring the right people and firing the wrong ones is a serious part of business.

Do you see the common themes running through this article? If you are the boss, communicate what you expect from the employee as clearly as possible. Should the employee have potential, great. If not, you will do yourself, your company, and them a favor by letting them go.

Always choose to do what is best for everyone In the long run! It will make life and work much easier. I leave you with some wisdom from one of the country’s top business gurus:

“The day firing becomes easy is the day to fire yourself.” Tom Peters (1942-present)

Please note the above is generic advice consisting of personal opinions. If you have an HR department, always clear what you plan to do with them to ensure you are on the right side of the law. If there is no HR department, proceed cautiously and seek counsel.


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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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