A 10-step plan for removing a nightmare staff member


Have you ever had a member of your team that makes you so angry that you can’t hear their name without having your blood pressure increase? Someone who you have to manage through every interaction and constantly clean up after?

Many managers and team members have horror stories of working with a nightmare person, but how do we fix that situation? What if we are past the point of conciliation? Maybe the answer is not to remove the person, but rather change the nightmare.

1. Put aside your anger and bad attitude first

If you have someone on your team that you believe you cannot work with then you probably have a lot of anger directed towards them. This anger and emotion will often compel you to communicate badly, either through the words you use or the way they’re delivered. When navigating a difficult situation anger will provide your biggest obstacle, so side step it!

2. Assume you are part of the problem

The typical first point of action of a manager who is trying to deal with a really difficult employee is to vaguely tell that employee off for poor performance. This rarely works – it is a completely outward approach to fixing the problem. Combined with the fact that most difficult employees are equally as outward with their apportionment of blame and you can find yourself embroiled in a finger-pointing exercise that nobody can win. Consider what you have done to exacerbate the problem, or perhaps not done or been absent for. Recognise your contribution to the problem and be prepared to say that directly to the other person.

3. Work towards improving them

It’s time to get very specific about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. If these are mapped out and recorded specifically you can create a basis for moving forward and reducing the negative interactions. You can’t just tell a staff member to ‘work better with others’ – it’s a statement that is far too hazy. You can tell a staff member that interrupting people in meetings, or shooting down their ideas isn’t acceptable. If you are giving feedback be reasonable, factual and specific.

4. Take the personality out of it: Set some clear goals and tasks

Take every measure you can to reduce the intense emotionality around a damaged working relationship. Bring the conversation back to some clear goals and tasks that can be agreed on. The relationship may be salvageable if you can find common ground to work on. Focus on shared goals and agreements. Of course, things may heat up again if goals aren’t met and the employee once again can’t take responsibility.

5. Agree on how they will be monitored and checked

Changing behaviour requires providing regular feedback. Managers that tell their staff to improve but only follow up when things become terrible again struggle with this ideal. Having an agreement on how behaviours will be monitored and checked, and then delivering on that agreement is so important.

6. Regular checks!

Give regular feedback on what is done well and not done well – share summary notes. You must try to avoid emotion and be factual. Setting aside regular times to discuss the work and any problem issues, whether it’s improving or getting worse, gives the staff member a regular chance to improve.

Mindfulness is the key to change, and old habits are hard to break, so frequent monitoring and checking gives the person a real chance to change.

7. Give training tips to improve

Ask the person how they will change? What they can do to improve. Be prepared to offer constructive, not patronising, suggestions. You can’t just tell someone to improve without telling them how. Sometimes it can seem a little condescending, but let’s face it – if things have gotten to this point some training tips are probably required. Be careful about how you deliver training tips – tact is important. And if this is leading to a formal performance management scenario – document and have the person agree to changes.

8. Time-related targets

It can often sound like delivering an ultimatum, but time-framed targets provide the best basis for improvement. Time-framing provides motivation as well as a clear end point for review. If targets aren’t hit, either for behavioural or productivity reasons, you can deliver a warning. If it continues then offer an improvement plan, but make the goals clear. And document – dates, discussion, items, agreements, action plans.

9. Be very specific about boundaries and what needs to be fixed

Creating behaviour change and improving relationships requires drawing clear boundaries. If the boundaries are blurred at all then you open the door for misinterpretation, frustration and disagreement. This will only fuel the disintegration of the working relationship. Remember, it’s in everyone’s best interest for working relationships to be healthy and productive. If you’re crossing swords with someone you’re both reducing your output.

10. If all this still doesn’t work?

Then it’s time to pay a visit to HR. Find out and refresh your knowledge of state laws and your organization’s policies around delivering warnings and how many are required within a specific time frame to terminate an employee’s position. Make sure you know what documentation is required. Even problem employees have rights that have to be observed and respected, so make sure you’re doing everything by the book, or a regrettable working relationship can soon become a very big problem in your life.

Workplaces are strange social environments. We are thrown together with people that we wouldn’t normally choose to spend time with (yet we spend 40+ hours a week with co-workers). It is our responsibility to work as hard as we can to make our relationships at work productive. If it does fall towards the unfortunate realities of not being able to work together then follow correct procedures.

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