Paul Heltzel
Contributing writer

8 problematic IT team members — and how to deal with them

Jun 29, 202310 mins
IT ManagementStaff Management

Culture and productivity are key components of IT success. That’s why addressing personnel issues is paramount before their ramifications spread.

Frustrated man talking on smart phone at home office
Credit: Zivica Kerkez / Shutterstock

Problematic employees appear in every industry, but managing employees in the IT field comes with a specific set of challenges. 

Lack of engagement in IT work environments translates to employees who miss deadlines, put off coworkers, or otherwise cause friction with their colleagues.

A recent Gallup report showed that unengaged employees lead to a range of negative outcomes for the organization, including increased absenteeism and higher turnover, as well as a decrease in product quality and sales, customer loyalty and engagement, profitability, and employees’ overall sense of well-being.  

Whether the cause of the problem is a lack of soft skills, technical proficiency, or motivation, we’ve gathered some tips for addressing various types of problem IT employees, as well as advice for how to improve the situation, or, in some cases, move on.

The deadline destroyer

Piyush Tripathi, lead engineer and tech lead at Square, says a range of issues can lead to a problem that’s all too familiar with IT managers: missed deadlines. Tripathi offers some tips for getting projects back on track.

“I set clear expectations and establish regular check-ins and encourage them to call out project risks,” he says. “This proactive approach allows us to identify and address any challenges early on.”

In some cases, an employee with solid technical skills may still struggle with solving unexpected problems as they come up. And the issue is compounded if they’re not effective at communicating.

Tripathi emphasizes the importance of honest communication. These problems won’t go away without involvement from the manager.

“When dealing with a problematic IT employee, my best tip is to approach the situation with empathy and a focus on constructive solutions,” Tripathi says. “Provide specific feedback, offer support, and monitor progress while exploring alternative measures if necessary.”

The IT pro with attitude

Whether this problem manifests itself as a lack of energy, resistance to change, or aggressiveness, Tripathi says the best way to address an employee with a bad attitude is to get the problem out in the open, and, in some cases, enlist the help of colleagues. 

“To reduce coworker friction, I promote understanding and collaboration,” he says. “I encourage team discussions where individuals can express their concerns, fostering a positive work culture based on teamwork,” he says. “By organizing team-building activities and encouraging cross-functional projects, we create a sense of unity and reduce conflicts.”

If engaging the team isn’t yielding results, Tripathi says it may be time to call in career professionals: Get assistance from human resources. 

“When dealing with persistent conflicts, I involve HR to provide neutral guidance and facilitate conflict resolution,” he says. “This ensures that issues are addressed professionally, and support is provided to affected employees.”

Tanja Guerra, chief human resources officer of Alpha Omega, recommends keeping it positive and modeling appropriate workplace behavior. 

“We encourage managers to first define the behaviors they want employees to embrace,” Guerra says. “Once they’ve defined the behaviors, managers need to ensure they’re embodying them themselves and lead by example. If the employee’s bad attitude persists, then the manager needs to spend time coaching them on their behavior before making the decision on whether to let them go.”


The toxic teammate

When advising companies on digital transformations, Maura Charles, a product and leadership coach, often encounters managers who are unwilling to address toxic employees — and without intervention, the problem grows.

“I see bad behavior swept under the rug regularly,” Charles says. “In technology, this often happens because companies hire solely on the basis of technical skills and experience and don’t consider the importance of communication, emotional intelligence, and growth mindset. These so-called soft skills are what make technology initiatives and products successful, though.”

Her advice? Seek some outside perspective from another capable manager or other trusted source. 

“Seeing the impact of all of these types of behaviors on team productivity and morale, I often find that team or leadership retrospectives can help shine a light on challenges,” she says. “When leaders ignore these issues, they tend to fester, and the teams and outcomes suffer. By tackling the issues, you may avoid losing talented employees by showing that the people and their work environment matter.”

Whatever approach you settle on, you’ll at least know you’re not simply passing the buck at the expense of your colleagues.

“Don’t let bad behavior go,” Charles says. “And do not move the person into another team. Address it head on and don’t tolerate toxic personalities, because they can destroy a positive and productive culture.”

The great pretender

Regardless of your vetting process, bad hires happen. More than one tech leader said they frequently see candidates who overstate their skillset, which becomes painfully clear once a project deadline is looming.

Amruth Laxman, founding partner at 4Voice, says it’s sometimes a matter of overconfidence. 

“Many people want to get into IT and know something about computers but not enough for the job,” Laxman says. “Either they think they have the skills or they lie to get the job. They are always asking coworkers to help and cover for them, causing problems with ongoing projects.”

The skills gap only exacerbates the problem, says Kimberly Baker, chief operating officer at Evotix. 

“There are scenarios where people say they have a particular skill but haven’t used it for years,” Baker says. “They’re often far behind in capability and don’t clarify that during the interview process.”

The square peg

Even accomplished IT pros can end up in a position that’s just a bad fit for all involved. CHRO Guerra says some technologists who are used to demonstrating their skill by writing code may not excel at conveying their abilities in a resume.

“Different shops develop differently, and this can inherently lead to challenges,” Guerra says. “If you’re coming from an agile scrum shop running on two-week sprints, how difficult would it be to take your tech stake to a company using a non-agile methodology or engaging in different iteration cadences?”

Guerra says with fierce competition for tech talent, hiring managers outside of Fortune 100 tech firms with instant name recognition may be unable to vet candidates as thoroughly as they’d like. Some of the most in-demand candidates won’t interview in person, she says, or won’t agree to coding or other tech challenges. 

“Removing talented technologists from their day job to screen candidates creates delays in their own productivity — it’s also expensive for the company,” she says. “Interviewers might be inclined to rush the process and cut corners to get to the end of an interview process, which could lead to bad hires.”

Meanwhile, you need talented professionals with a good mix of technology and people skills, and who have experiences and an approach that fits well with yours, says Nadine Kano, managing partner at Arioso Group.

“How do you effectively screen for that?” she asks. “Many technology interviews focus on testing whether candidates can solve technical problems and don’t probe for whether they can resolve human problems. One of my mentors once told me that it’s crucial to balance the dreamers vs. the doers. If the team is too lopsided toward dreamers, they never ship anything. If it’s too lopsided toward doers, then they never ship anything innovative.”

The multitasking moonlighter

This problem employee is easily identified because they’re hard to reach, routinely miss project milestones, and are nowhere to be found when they’re needed most. It’s the ostensibly hard-charging IT employee with a side hustle — or worse — multiple gigs handled on premises, using your hardware.

“Rather than invest in equipment, they get a job to use yours,” Laxman says. “They may stay late after work or come in early. You may think they are being ambitious for you, but in reality, they want to use the equipment. The worst offenders are those who do this on your time.”

The problems Laxman describes are more serious than garden-variety disengagement, and they may demand a more formal response to address them. And again, the key is direct and open communication.

“Most employers follow the process of a verbal consultation, addressing problems with the employee, signaling that they’ve been addressed and why,” he says. “This is a more proactive approach to finding a solution rather than a warning. That’s followed by a verbal warning, then a written warning, followed by a reprimand, followed by a suspension, followed by other disciplinary action such as a demotion or termination. The final option depends on the offense and its seriousness.”


The repeat offender

Kano says the best way to deal with a problematic employee is to avoid them in the first place, starting with the interview. 

“Interviewers need to ask very detailed questions to understand what the candidate has actually accomplished and how good they are at what they do — kick the tires on their resume, so to speak. Absolutely call their references,” she says.

And she has blunt advice for those working with an IT employee who can’t or won’t be reformed: “Fire them.”

“You can go sideways trying to reform a problem employee,” Kano says. “It drains you and demoralizes everyone else. Why give problem employees all your time and attention when you could be spending your energy with your best people? If the problem is the employee is a manager, it’s important to fire fast. If they’re customer-facing, fire even faster. If you think it’s compassionate to give them third, fourth, and fifth chances, it’s not. A single, problem employee can create a toxic work environment for everyone around them. Think about the reverberating impact that has on your organization.”


The lone wolf

Baker identifies another problematic employee, who likes going it alone rather than collaborating with a team, creating a cultural rift.

“They don’t want to attend company events or follow specific processes, because they want to only work on their software,” Baker says. “They believe, ‘If you make me do this, I’ll leave and go elsewhere.’”

When dealing with a disgruntled solo artist, Baker recommends managing the situation with regular check-ins, where you can discuss expectations and talk through performance or attitude challenges. 

“We also encourage collecting 360 [degree] feedback from others that work with them,” she says. “Partner with employees in resolving any issues. Ultimately make them accountable but support them and give them the tools to succeed.”