Do you have a problem employee on your team? If so, you’re not alone. It seems that almost everyone has worked with a problem employee at some point in their career. And if you ask people to describe these employees, you could fill a dictionary with the colorful adjectives used. Here are just a few of our personal favorites, culled from popular press articles and from our interactions with leaders around the globe:
- Bad apple
- Hot mess
- Passive aggressive
- Perpetual victim
Despite the seeming prevalence of problem employees, though, some perplexing questions remain. Is there a litmus test to determine who is a problem employee and who isn’t? Is a colleague who digs in his heels on certain issues a “problem employee,” or just stubborn? How about a team member who explodes after a prolonged period of stress? Are the business articles with caricatures of problem employees — like the boring “droner” or the arrogant “Einstein” — accurately capturing the issues facing managers today?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of data available to help leaders resolve these questions and define the characteristics of a problem employee in a meaningful way. That’s why our team designed a study to learn more and to determine which of the many characterizations of problem employees hold true.
We started by asking a global sample of more than 200 leaders to describe a current or past problem employee. Using a rigorous research methodology, we coded their responses and developed a typology of the most prevalent characteristics mentioned. We also asked the leaders to rate the impact of the problem employee on their team and on their personal leadership career.
This paper features the results we uncovered. It also includes best practices for how to provide feedback to problem employees to encourage them to change their behavior.
The process we recommend also increases the likelihood that your feedback will be heard and understood by problem workers, even those who are resistant to criticism and change.
The Business Impact of Problem Employees
Problem employees aren’t just an aggravation. They can be a real business liability. Recent research shows that underperforming employees can cost an organization $6,000 to $8,000 a day by reducing the motivation and effectiveness of the entire work group.
In our leadership development programs, for example, we find that problem employees are never far from the thoughts of course participants. In fact, many of the questions fielded by our faculty members relate to challenges with certain “special” employees. “How can I get my colleague to stop being so negative? Her attitude ruins every meeting.” Or, “I understand that giving feedback to employees is important, but if I called my coworker on his poor performance, I think it would just get worse!”
When we ask a group to reflect on a current problem employee as part of a module on conflict management, we are far more likely to hear “Can I choose more than one!?” than to hear “What do you mean by ‘problem employee?’”
Characteristics of Problem Employees: What Our Study Has to Say
If you want to be an effective leader, it’s important to identify problem employees and confront their behavior. But what does that problem behavior really look like? What characteristics separate chronic problem employees from those who are just having a bad day or week?
When our research team asked leaders around the globe to describe their problem employees, we found a cluster of 11 prevalent characteristics:
Why It’s Important to Confront Problem Employees
As our study shows, problem employees can have a negative impact on their work group and on the career of their boss. With the right moves, however, you may be able to shift the dynamic and produce a more positive outcome for everyone involved. You just have to be willing to confront your problem employee about unacceptable behaviors.
We’ve long known that confronting problem employees results in better outcomes for organizations and for leaders themselves. A classic study of managers shows the benefit of taking action: Leaders who consistently confronted problem employees tended to achieve better overall team performance. They’re also more likely to get promoted.
Why does confronting problems improve results? In some instances, confronting a problem employee can result in positive behavioral changes. It may also signal to others what effective behavior looks like, and it indicates that managers are paying attention to the performance of the team. Plus, other group members may be more motivated when they know that problem employees are being properly dealt with, rather than being ignored or left to diminish the work and morale of the team.
Learn more about how to deal with problem employees — including specific feedback advice — by downloading the full white paper below.
Sydney Siver supported our CCL research team during our “problem employee” study. She now works as an analyst with Denison Consulting while pursuing her PhD in industrial/organizational psychology at Wayne State University. She previously worked with Paradigm Personality Labs. Sydney has a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in sociology from the University of Georgia, as well as an M.A. in industrial/organizational psychology from East Carolina University.Download White Paper