Dealing With Difficult Employees When You Don't Have Time

There's a great scene in Shrek when Lord Farquaad breaks off the legs of the Gingerbread Man, basically torturing him for information. Gingy refuses to divulge anything until Lord Farquaad goes for the jugular reaching for his candy buttons. "NO! Not the buttons! Not my gumdrop buttons!," Gingy cries and gives in.This is how leaders of growing companies deal with talent problems. You wait until it's going to cause you real pain. Fundraising or new hire? Client problem or co-worker disagreement? Valuation or toxic employee? When you're focusing on getting investment, customers, attention and Board approval, there's no time for talent. Until there has to be.

But you don't have to wait until it's gumdrop buttons serious. You can manage talent while you're running a business. And you can handle difficult employees before you get to the point where you're ready to break their legs off. Or where your other employees just want to run.

Deal With It Now

If there's a problem, deal with it in 24 hours. Don't cancel an investment pitch for a difficult employee, but don't ignore the problem for days or weeks either. That demonstrates to other employees that the behavior is tolerated. It also means you forget what exactly happened and move on to putting out other fires. No matter how busy you are, ask the employee for time to talk in the next 24 hours and make it happen.

Give Regular Feedback From Day One

If you bring employees on board, focus on execution and never give them feedback on what's working and what's not, the first time you tell them there's a problem, it's defensive city. They're surprised, you're annoyed and the chasm of communication breakdown gets wider and wider.

From day one, tell new employees when they'll get feedback and how it will be delivered. Share things they are doing well and things they need to improve on. And then actually do it. Regularly. It makes it easier when things get tough, for the tough messages to be delivered. Employees will be used to the conversations -- even if they're on the fly -- and be prepared to ask questions and won't be caught off guard.

Use Your Culture to Make Your Case

Without values modeled by the leadership team, culture is just a collection of silly perks and CEO sound bytes. If you have a set of values and what exaqueo calls work rules, you can always point back to them as a guidepost of how business gets done in your organization.

For example, let's say transparency is one of your core values and you have an associated work rule that describes how and when employees need to be transparent. Then, when an employee hides something or doesn't want to admit there's a problem, you point back to the work rule. If they can't adapt, they're out. Otherwise your trading commitment to culture for one person.

Don't Hide Behind Technology

As founders or leaders, we're always on the fly. I'm writing this blog post from an airport lounge! But that doesn't mean I should text an employee if there's a problem, or shoot off an email, hit send, and shut down the computer. Feedback has to be a two-way street real-time. A ten-minute phone call now will save you five emails later and an employee so frustrated, stewing about the feedback that he doesn't focus for the rest of the day. Always direct, always in-person (or on the phone)--the only way to give feedback.

Give Employees a Chance, But Not More Than One

An employee who makes a mistake can learn and change. A toxic employee can't. That's why multiple chances don't work. Don't count to three or give start-up employees long leashes. You don't have time for that. Instead, be clear about the problem, connect it back to your culture and be honest that you don't have time for it to happen again. Encourage communication--if they aren't sure what to do, ask! But don't give out chances like candy.

You may be able to ignore or de-prioritize difficult employees until they cause a major problem. But waiting means the problem is now big enough to really impact your business. Do you have time for that? Don't cut off your legs to spite your face. And by all means, don't wait until it gets this serious.



exaqueo is a workforce consultancy that helps startups and high-growth companies build their cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you build a workforce that’s aligned with your company culture and develop an employer brand that will allow your business to scale the right way.


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