Dealing with problem employees

How do you coach a problem employee, and when and how do you let them go?

Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst
Executive Director, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council

Meet and clarify expectations

Your problem employee may just need a bit of support. Meet with this employee to review the situation and clarify what you expect. Explain the ways their current actions aren’t meeting the requirement and give them some help (show them what to do, give them guides or tools to assist). Listen to the kinds of questions they have; these can give you a clue about what is going wrong.

During this meeting, be specific about what you expect, explain what the consequences will be if you don’t see improvements and set a date for your next discussion. Be sure to provide these details to the employee in writing during this meeting to avoid any confusion. A warning letter may be appropriate.

Closely monitor their work and document what you see. Getting the most out of your employees takes time and energy.

Put the effort in at this stage to help get a problem employee back on track by re-stating expectations, providing support, monitoring progress and communicating results. It may help you avoid firing an inexperienced or uncertain employee, and speaks volumes to everyone in the business about your values.

However, if your problem employee doesn’t show progress, your next meeting will be to follow through on the stated consequences. Firing an employee is a last resort, one that should only come after extensive effort and careful planning by management. 

Dr. Sara Mann
Associate Professor, Leadership and Management
University of Guelph

Think administrative and motivational

From an administrative perspective, an employer wants to increase legal defensibility – ensuring their employee knows what is required of them, measuring performance fairly and accurately, documenting poor performance, providing continuous feedback and providing an opportunity to improve (including sufficient time and guidance). However, motivating the problem employee and all other employees who watch how you handle the situation is just as important.

Employers want to be perceived as being fair and ensure the employee has everything needed to do the job. Ensure the problem employee has a high level of self-efficacy. Not the same as self-esteem, self-efficacy is job-specific – does the employee believe they can do the job? An employee’s level of self-efficacy can be affected by many things: has the employer told them what is expected? Do they have the skills, tools, resources and time they need? If an employee is not performing well, it is often because they lack self-efficacy.

Perceptions of fairness, specifically procedural fairness, is also extremely important. Procedural fairness refers to how performance is measured, how discipline is applied, who gets what, etc. The procedures used to handle this situation will be closely scrutinized by all employees, so ensure they're transparent as well as fair.

A problem employee can lead to a toxic work culture. Sometimes, letting an employee go is the only way to deal with the situation, but only after sufficient attention has been spent on a fair and legally defensible discipline process.

Murray Porteous
Partner, Lingwood Farms Ltd.
Labour Chair, Canadian Horticulture Council

Discuss using the STAR method

If an employee has gone through training, performance measures and peer support, but performance still isn’t appropriate, I have a discussion with them starting with the acronym STAR:

Situation: here is what I need to get done, why, how and when.

Task: this is what has been expected of you and why it’s important to my goals and yours.

Action: this is what you have been doing that’s not acceptable.

Result: this is how your performance is affecting your team and keeping us from achieving our goals.

This keeps the feedback focused on the job rather than the personality. We discuss what needs to change and develop a plan with measurable results in a given timeframe. We come to an understanding of what the outcome will be if the individual does not achieve the desired results.

If the employee feels a conflict between group members is affecting performance, I will re-arrange the groups or living arrangements so the individual is not singled out, but ends up in another group with strong leadership. I review the individual’s performance with the employee and his or her new supervisor.

Goals, feedback, follow-up and measures of performance are all recorded. Once the agreed-to timeframe is reached, performance results are reviewed with the employee. If they are still not performing to expectation, they will usually have further suggestions or be ready to leave on their own. We can discuss ending the contract, changing the job or moving to another employer.

From an AgriSuccess article (June 2018).


Want to improve your people skills?

The AgriHR Toolkit is designed for agriculture. Find resources to help you find, retain, and support your employees.

Check it out