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Dealing with Bad Employees

I can remember when I first got into the towing business. I was in the computer industry for 35 years dealing with white collar computer professionals who thought they knew everything. My first exposure in towing was operating a private property towing company and dealing with drivers who thought they knew everything. I can remember screaming at them and them screaming right back at me. All the employees in the company would hear me arguing. I knew this was not good for the company and I would have to change. It seems like every company has that one or two employees that just give them fits.

I can remember teaching a class at the Baltimore tow show and a manager coming up after the class and telling me that he hates his drivers and they hate him. That’s a bad position to be in because it creates a problem for your entire company. We had a long discussion and I tried to make him realize it’s the drivers that make him money and he would have to change not them in order to make it work. As an owner it’s sometimes hard to give in to employees but you have to look at what is good for everyone working there. A good employee with a bad attitude can hold your entire company hostage.

Let’s look at a few things we can do when dealing with that troubled employee:

1. Listen. Often, when an employee is difficult we stop paying attention to what’s actually going on. We’re irritated and we think that employee is hopeless, so we ignore the problem and hope it corrects itself. The best shot at improving bad situation lies in having the clear understanding of the situation. This includes knowing the tough employee’s point of view. In most cases, simply listening can save the day. You may hear about a real problem that’s not the employee’s fault that you can solve. The tough employee may start acting very differently once he or she feels heard, you may discover legitimate issues he or she has that need to be addressed.

2. Give clear, behavioral feedback. Most Owners or managers will go a long time complaining about bad employees and not ever giving them actual feedback about what they need to be doing differently. Giving feedback is one of the most uncomfortable things a manager has to do, but it’s a important part of addressing the problem. When you are giving feedback try not to put them in a defensive position and give them specific information they need in order to improve.

3. Document. Whenever you’re having significant problems with an employee, WRITE DOWN THE KEY POINTS. I can’t stress this strongly enough. If you are planning on firing someone it’s good to have documentation about their bad behavior. This helps them understand why you are letting them go and it also protects you. Remember, if you’re able to solve the problem, you can just breathe a sigh of relief and put your documentation back in the drawer.

4. Be consistent. If you say you’re not OK with a behavior, don’t sometimes be OK with it. Employees look to see what you do more than what you say. If, for instance, you tell a driver they need to inspect the truck before they get in it and they don’t and you let them drive you will never correct the problem. I had a driver that I would argue with all the time. Finally I would send him home. I would lose his tows but he had to see that there were consequences if he did not listen. Pick the standards you’re actually willing to hold to – and then hold to them.

5. Set consequences if things don’t change. If things still aren’t improving at this point get specific. Let them know that you still think they can turn it around but here is what they have to do and give them a date to do it by. If problem employees don’t believe their behavior will have any real negative impact on them – why would they change?

6. Work through the company’s processes. Good managers hold out hope for improvement until the point when they actually decide to let the person go. At this point you will have documentation to protect yourself. The employee will not be surprised when you let them good because they know you tried to resolve the problem.

7. Don’t poison the well. All too often, poor managers substitute bad-mouthing the problem employee to others rather than taking the steps needed to resolve the problem. No matter how difficult an employee may be, good managers don’t trash- talk to other employees. It creates an environment of distrust and back-stabbing, it pollutes others’ perception of the person, and it makes you look weak and unprofessional.

8. Manage your self-talk. Throughout this process, make sure your self-talk is neither positive nor negative. Thinking to yourself, “This guy’s an idiot and will never change,” isn’t useful, nor is thinking, “Everything will turn out fine, he’s great, there’s no problem.” making sure that what they say to themselves about the situation is as accurate as possible. For example, “His behavior is creating real problems for the team. I’m doing what I can to support him to change. If he does, great, and if he doesn’t, I’ll do what I’ve said I’ll do.”

9. Be courageous. Firing someone is the hardest thing you can do. If it gets to that point, do it right. Don’t make excuses, don’t put it off, don’t make someone else do it. If you learn to use these ‘good manager’ approaches when you have a difficult employee, then no matter how things turn out, you’ll end up knowing that you’ve done your best in a tough situation. And that may be the best stress reducer of all.

It may be impossible to change an employee’s bad attitude, but it’s not impossible to correct the problems bad attitudes cause.

Make the distinction between bad attitudes and bad behaviors. What seems like an attitude problem to one person may not seem all that bad to another. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that it’s nearly impossible to document an attitude, and documenting instances of employee behaviors is the key to correcting them. Instead, determine how an employee’s bad attitude is contributing to bad behaviors that are easy to describe and document.

Document the employee’s bad behavior. Include dates, times, any other employees who were present or involved, and the details of the incident, including any supporting documentation if any. If the employee’s behavior is a violation of any organizational policy, refer to that policy and limit the documentation to these details only.

Schedule a meeting with the employee to discuss documented incidences of bad behavior. If the documented instances involve one member of management specifically that is not you, sit in on the meeting. Including an uninvolved third party in the meeting can defuse a difficult situation, while also protecting you from claims of discrimination or harassment by the employee with the attitude problem.

Explain how the documented behaviors impact the organization, outline the consequences if the behaviors violated policy, and ask the employee what he or she would like to do to remedy the situation. Develop a plan for change with the assistance of the employee. Give the employee a specific amount of time to implement the plan, and set a time to reassess the situation after the time period is up. Let the employee know what the outcome will be if the plan does not work.

The last thing you want to do is let an employee go, especially a driver. It was hard at first for me to deal with some bad attitudes, but I was able to resolve the problem by working with the employees to improve their attitude and mine. Once we were on the same page we all lived happily ever after.