"Problem Employee"
by Lee A. Plutino

A "problem employee." What is that? We've all heard the term at one time or another. Was the employee a problem interview? Was there a line on the employment application that says check here if you're a potential problem? Were they a problem on their first day? Hope not. Second week? Unlikely. Third or fourth month?

So how does an employee graduate to "problem" status?

We all know as perfect human beings (insert laugh track here), that sometimes we have bad days. These are the times where you really couldn't care how many motivational posters you pass in the hallway with the inspirational scenes of the natural world in all its glory or the underdog sports figure winning the championship, illustrating that nothing is impossible. That report that is due at the end of the month will not be receiving the attention it so deserves because the stars just aren't aligned right today and that's just how it is going to be. I like to call this the " Fractured Star Alignment Syndrome". FSAS for those of you with an acronym fetish. We've all experienced this at one time or another.

Like most people though, we usually bounce back from a "Fractured Star Alignment" day and dive into the issues at hand without feeling the need to complain to half of the civilized world about it or let it affect our long term job performance. Unfortunately, there seems to be those one or two people (hopefully not anymore than that) in the company or department that seem to have a permanent case of "FSAS". We all can name them. Even the most angelic employee who bakes homemade cookies and pastries for everyone's birthday, and is truly interested when she asks you how your weekend was, will frown and roll her eyes when these names are mentioned.

This person or these persons probably don't wake up one morning and consciously start scheming to undermine every policy or procedure that is currently in place. Neither do they, all of a sudden, stop caring about their job performance. This metamorphosis happens over a period of time. It is typically a subtle transition. Companies are just as responsible for providing an environment to foster positive attitudes as the employee is for his or her own job performance. If you do not give something the proper attention that it deserves, whatever that thing may be, it invariably falls into decay and rots. Plain and simple. Just as a good attitude is contagious, so are poor ones, and you invariably want more positive than negative in what I like to call the collective conscience of the team. And you know how that collective conscience could be when there isn't milk for the free coffee that the company is provides.

A collective team conscience or mentality is an invaluable asset that you don't see on the balance sheet. Expectations need to be updated and communicated on a consistent basis. They're not just for the orientation process. The reality for most of the situations that arise is that somewhere between that person's first day of employment (or believe it or not, perhaps even starting in the interview process) and the present, either directly or indirectly, received the "message" that it was OK to think this way or more importantly to act in manner detrimental to the collective conscience or mentality of the work environment and the team.

Companies with the most advanced hiring and screening practices will still not have a perfect batting average finding the elusive "perfect" employee. Some potential new hires may be pre-wired that way and have the ability to slip under the radar, or worst of all we may "settle" just to fill that "impossible to fill position".

So if he or she fulfilled the initial hiring criteria and possessed whatever requirements needed or sought after, all the stars should be aligned for the new employee to fit right in and start producing at the high company standards along with everyone else for years to come. Right? Well, right and wrong.

How and what a company communicates, directly or indirectly, affects how the employee interprets his relationship to the company. Communication, or the messages that are conveyed, shape the culture and the general attitude of the workplace. It doesn't always have to be formal speeches, or staunchly worded company wide memos. But what ever it is, it must be positive and consistent. No need for cheerleaders with pompoms to give performances at the proverbial water cooler, although I'm sure that would be considered a positive measure in some quarters.

Positive and consistent messages will yield positive and consistent workers, which in turn yield positive and consistent results. People think with their attitude. Negative and more importantly, inconsistent messages over time will possibly confuse and yield an employee that will think inconsistently with his or her attitude toward the company. Every study and experiment in the history of mankind concerning attitude proves that positive equals performance. "Great effort springs naturally from a great attitude". Positive employees are more efficient, more willing to accept change, and more apt to project a healthy and professional attitude towards customers, vendors, and other employees (new or old). Think about it, a current employee's attitude is critical to any new hires coming aboard which you hope will be processing and accepting the team mentality.

A company can't control or force people to think a certain way, but it should strive to influence it by "broadcasting" a message that will have people thinking towards that one goal that would benefit not only the company but also its employees in the long run. And the long run is really where the rewards are.

Positive and consistent messages take work. They take effort. They take planning. There is no way around it. It isn't something that can be done every once in a while on the spur of the moment. If so, you will achieve your desired results every once in a while and they will only last for a moment. When a company has communicated to its workers one thing and consistently takes action in another direction, or when it does not follow through consistently on stated policy or procedure, it may indirectly convey a negative and confusing message. The message must be clear. You can't expect the employee to sort these messages out; they're busy trying to make the company money. If the company is not going to follow it's own "rules", why should the workers. Say what you do and do what you say.

One of the most damaging messages you can possibly have is to have no message at all. Every business from the service industry to manufacturing to professional sports to governments, no matter what they do or sell, does not exist in a vacuum. That goes for Electolux and Hoover too. There is always a message out there. It's sort of like gravity - it's a law. If you have 65 employees in a particular office, and there isn't an on-purpose, perpetual, consistent, clear and concise message being communicated; you might have 65 different messages that people are making up for themselves. What are the chances that they are all the same positive message with the company's goal in mind? You don't need Vinny the bookie from the backroom at the corner deli to set those odds. Why not put one out there that will serve the company's position?

You don't have to go out and hire a personal motivational coach for each individual upon their hiring. You also do not have to have everyone recite affirmations at the beginning of the workday. (Unless that is the message you want to send). Hopefully 99% of your people already have a good attitude towards their job, but even that could be improved on. Perfection may not be possible but imagine what you can achieve the closer you get to it. It can only bring more positive results to the table. Positive results create positive results and so on. Remember it is an on going process and there is no finish line.

You probably will not know how potential problems were adverted by communicating positive or consistent messages. People don't stop and look at the traffic that flows on the interstate unless there is an accident. It will take less effort and resources to advert those problem employees in the first place then to clean up the potential wreckage.


Lee A. Plutino has over 15 years experience in executive management and is currently an operations manager in Wilton Ct. Contact Lee by e-mail: Lee.Plutino@lamygroup.com

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Copyright 2002 by Lee A. Plutino. All rights reserved.

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