The Problem Employee: What to Do? 7 Steps!

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The Problem Employee: What to Do? 7 Steps! 1

The Problem Employee and What to Do!


Every organization has a problem employee and sometimes a lot more than one, right? I think I was one. I can attest that I honestly did not know I was. It was the only time I was fired in my life. I started to clock in and the manager at Newcomb’s Bar in Dayton, Ohio’s night partying Oregon District, was waiting for me. He smirked and said, “Don’t clock in. The boss wants to talk to you.”

Newcombs was a huge dance and party bar with an oval bar in the middle of a huge dancing floor…and we had crowds of people edging up to every part of that bar…as we bartenders ran back and forth grabbing bottles of beer, making drinks, etc.

So, I go to the boss’s office, knock on the open door frame.

“Don’t even sit down,” he said, “you are fired.”

I was astounded, as I am a punctual, non-shirking worker…no one outworks me.

“What? Why?” I, of course, asked.

“You are too slow working the bar.”

“Well, I can speed up, for Pete’s sake, why didn’t you say something?”

[Back story: At another restaurant-bar in Troy, Ohio, my first bartender boss – almost the first thing – sat me down and told me, “No one NEEDS a drink. We maintain a casual demeanor. It is not the drink but how you put it on the coaster.” That is the way I was trained.

Newcomb’s was a younger crowd, no restaurant and I had made no transition in my bartender saunter.

“All you had to do was tell me, Andy, I was trained to be casual and smooth, not a bar-sprinter.”

“Pick up your check tomorrow. See ya,” was his response.

I was ashamed and embarrassed. It was humbling.*

But I never forgot that and, have had many, many jobs after that, until I got my advanced degrees and became a professor, then settled down. And every now and then I would see someone else get fired and saw the hurt and strain it created for everyone – and the fear in the rest of the employees.

So, I have been researching this a lot, especially after I read of Herzberg’s work and used it as a foundation for my doctoral dissertation at Florida State: “Work Environment, Risk-Taking and Teacher Walkout Behavior.” It was based on surveying teachers after the first statewide teacher walkout in history – in Florida in 1968.problem employee

The Major Problem Areas

There are three general areas in which we can classify employee problems:

  1. Attendance
  2. Performance
  3. Conduct

Attendance – Every organization has expectations for when employees should be at work, how long they should stay there, and when they should leave for the day. Sounds simple, but there are complications on both sides. Less and less, workplaces requires a consistent requirement for 9-5 workers for five days a week. Many workers are part-time, working more than one job. And/or hours are never consistent. My son, Zak, worked for a bookstore chain that had him working different hours from one week to the next. It made it very difficult for him to keep his Kwik-Trip part-time job that also wanted flex-hours from him. Something for employers to consider when demanding “perfect attendance.” It is a two-way street after all.

All that aside, a business HAS to depend on its complement of workers to be on there, on the job, and on time, and not to leave early. When this does not happen, something needs to be done, but how? Stay tuned.

Performance – An employee does not just need to be there but needs to meet quality and, often, quantity, standards. It is called “producing” – is the employee producing, basically, income for the company. If an employee costs more than he is producing the Q and Q standards are not being met, plain and simple.

Conduct – Not only are there performance standards but behavioral ones as well. Problems in this area can be bullying, sexual harassment, theft, improper reporting of expenses, safety violations, not following production instructions, misuse of company vehicles, unauthorized gifts (e.g., fellow bartenders were docked for handing out free drinks to attractive women), and the list goes on. When I owned a health food store and restaurant, I had employees stealing toilet paper and light bulbs, as well as cash from the drawer – and probably things I did not properly inventory.

So….what to do???

This is not a training manual, it is a blog, so I am going to provide some very fundamental, basic stuff that might help.

7 Things You Can Do with Problem Employees So It is a Win-Win Situation

The reason I provided the three areas above was to help you sort employee problems into the appropriate category, so you can deal in specifics. We always think that others are mind readers, although we know it is not true. We have enough experience ourselves to know better. See, you may have a very clear picture in your head of “What every employee should already know!” but, listen to me, they DON’T! Like my being told AFTER I was fired the boss expected every bartender to hustle hustle hustle. So, assume your employee knows nothing of your expectations. Right away that sets you into the proper mode of, “How can I make SURE they know what I expect of them??” and you are off to a good start.

I am going to lay out the best 7 steps I know. Perhaps you can think of some others? Every workplace is different. Obviously, walking a catwalk in a smelter is not quite the same as making a living in a cubicle on Wall Street. Farm employees might have different issues than office workers. But this is a good starting point. Please comment below if you have some additional ideas.

First: You should have a list of expectations for every position.

Don’t assume anything! Make a bulleted list, like this:

  • Be on time. Anticipate traffic delays or road construction…there are no penalties for arriving early! (But it does look good!)
  • If you are going to be late or absent, call in and let your supervisor know.
  • Put in an 8 hour day. If you arrive late, work late the equivalent amount. You are being paid for 8 hours, so please deliver.

Etc etc.

As simple as this sounds it is helpful to lay it out – clarity is always good.

To make sure things are clear to the employee, have them repeat back to you what they think the expectations are on any job requirement.

Does the employee understand “levels of performance”?

  • What is the exceptional performance of duties?
  • What is the expected performance of duties?
  • What is the substandard performance of duties?
  • What is the termination performance of duties?

Second: Provide training.

As I am writing this, I am laughing as I put myself through college working as many part-time jobs as I could find. Probably half the jobs I was just thrown into them and told to, basically, “Get to work!” (I wrecked so many pieces in a machine shop it was pathetic! Until a younger, more sympathetic foreman took me aside and patiently trained me I cost the company a bunch of money, including a part for submarine hatch covers! Sorta important those are precise, eh?

Third: Provide feedback.

  • Inform the employee of his/her job description.
  • Provide information on how well or poorly they are doing.

Fourth: Remove obstacles.

  • Is the employee receiving conflicting messages about what to do?
  • Do they have the tools, equipment, the authority, and the support they need to do a good job?
  • Do they know what level of competency is expected?
  • Do they know what ‘success’ looks like?

Fifth: Arrange appropriate consequences

  • What happens when the employer meets expectations?
  • What happens when he/she doesn’t?
  • Does the job itself produce unpleasant consequences? [I worked a job where I was burned by creosote if I did the job quickly, and in a machine shop where if I worked too fast and carelessly I could lose fingers or a hand. (long before all those required safety requirements.)]

Sixth: Does the employee understand monies involved?

  • Do they know their pay?
  • Do they know deductions?
  • Do they know what fringe benefits they receive?
  • Do they know when they get paid?
  • Are they aware of any pay docking consequences?

So, an employee is substandard in performance, behavior, etc. Now what?

Simply have a meeting! A private meeting. Never dress down employees in front of other employees. There is never a good reason to humiliate an employee. It almost always backlashes anyway, besides being inhumane.

7. If things are not going smoothly…have a meeting!

So, an employee is substandard in performance, behavior, etc. Now what? Fire them?

problem employee fired


Simply have a meeting! A private meeting. Never dress down employees in front of other employees. There is never a good reason to humiliate an employee. It almost always backlashes anyway, besides being inhumane.

How to have a productive meeting with your problem employee:

Before the meeting

  1. Clearly identify the problem
  2. Make sure the employee IS the owner of the problem
  3. Determine the impact of their problem upon their work and the company
  4. Decide on consequences, if there are any (like docking pay, reprimand, yellow slip, etc.)
  5. Clearly define the action step you are considering taking

During the meeting

  1. Describe Steps 1 – 5 above.
  2. Confirm your decision on consequences
  3. Gain the employee’s agreement
  4. Explain how it will be carried out – proper procedures

After the meeting

  1. Document everything!
  2. Follow up on your decisions, consequences, and agreements


The golden rule. Every year in grade school we were given a brand-new ruler from the Coca Cola company. On the back was The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

With the procedures above everyone is a winner. Treat employees with respect and you usually will get the same back. Be nasty and you will get sabotage, passive-aggressive behavior, skullduggery and a bad reputation as an employer.

Win-Win is best…and you can still make a profit!


*I learned later Andy had replaced me with the manager’s nephew, and that it had nothing to do with my bar speed. I will never know. But it did not help the situation, even it was true. It was an awful experience and, hopefully, this article will prevent it from happening to either party.


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