by John Baldoni

How to Deal With Problem Employees

Sep 22, 20084 mins
IT Leadership

Employees behaving badly? Three tips for nipping workplace annoyances in the bud

Annoyed by a coworker who was constantly whistling, the employee did what all people who fear confrontation do: He gave the job to someone else. He called over a coworker on the pretense of having her look at something on his computer screen. When she arrived at his cubicle, she heard the whistling and immediately shouted for the offender to stop, calling him a “freaking moron.” The whistling stopped. Chalk up another one for the brash talkers!

This scene is fictional; it is the premise behind a Dilbert strip in which Dilbert uses Alice to silence the offending whistler. Hilarious as it is, the strip rings true. So many of us who work in offices must put up with annoyances that really are not funny. What’s more they can be costly. And research into workplace annoyances published in the Journal of Applied Psychology bears this out. For example, when employees feel abused by their bosses, they will slack off by taking long lunches, surfing the Internet or maybe even stealing things.

When employees feel they are the victims of rudeness, productivity slackens. According to the Academy of Management Perspectives, more than half of “victims” say they worry about future interactions with the offenders.

But these problems are dwarfed by those created by the “untouchables,” that is, chronic underperformers whose annoying behaviors are given a free pass by their managers. More than 90 percent of employees surveyed by Vital Smarts reported this problem in their workplace. As a result, everyone else—the touchables—must pick up the slack.

Calling these offenders “morons” may satisfy an immediate need to lash out, but it will not solve the problem. Managers need to treat these individuals more systemically. Here are some ways to deal with problem employees of all types.

Point out the problem. Talk about what is going wrong. It could be lack of cooperation or it could be not showing up. It may be doing things that irritate other employees; this may include telling off-color jokes, talking on the cell phone during meetings or having loud and personal conversations in your cube, despite being asked to stop by coworkers. Be specific about how these behaviors are bothering others and causing disruptions that are harming productivity.

Ask for their solution. Before you act, ask the offender how he would solve the problem. Ask him what he would do if he were in your position. Telling other people to grow up or get a life is not an adequate response.

Some folks may not be aware that their behavior is bothering anyone. Merely pointing it out may solve the problem completely. However, for those who persist in being annoying there must be consequences in the form of disciplinary actions. Sometimes isolating a person who performs well but no one can stand being around is a solution. Teamwork is not for everyone and so working alone may be a win-win for everyone.

Follow up. Never assume the problem will go away. Stay on top of the issue by observing the workplace and asking questions. See if the improvements are working. If they are, fine.

If not, and the problem is serious, you may have to remove the employee from the workplace entirely. Human Resources can advise you on policy and procedures.

One common excuse that offenders use is that they get their work done. And, in fact, it may be true. However, just because they get the work done it’s no excuse for making coworkers feel uncomfortable by being rude and uncooperative. Furthermore, such misbehavior causes workplace disruption; specifically, it may cause others to slack off, either because they feel uncomfortable or because they cannot stand working with a coworker who treats them so shabbily.

The workplace need not be Sesame Street, where everyone gets along, save for Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster. There will be tension, including loud voices, cross looks and even whistling in cubicles. But the workplace should be a place where employees can do their work without being interrupted by chronic bad behaviors. If such behaviors are not addressed, research shows us something else: People leave for greener (and quieter) pastures.

John Baldoni is a leadership and communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as with nonprofits. He is the author of seven books on leadership. His latest book is Lead by Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results. Visit his leadership resource website at