Episode 36: A guide to handling difficult employees


All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü and Gene Marks

If you’ve ever had one of these folks slyly sneak under the radar to disrupt the cultural and financial flow of business, we have the podcast for you.

Enter Nancy Riegle, VP of Human Resources at the National Association of Manufacturers, who you might say is a “difficult detector.” Backed by 20+ years of experience, she’s truly seen it all when it comes to less-than-ideal employees.

Tune into Xero Gravity #36 and you’ll hear her take on what to look for and how to solve the difficult employee challenge. Among Nancy’s insights: job screening questions focused on soft skills and intangibles, understanding behavior versus skillset, separating performance expectations from cultural ones, and the
cannot-be-overstated role that kindness and dignity play.

It’s 30 minutes with Elizabeth Ü & Gene Marks that’ll save you time, money, energy
and unnecessary stress. With one Positive Nancy!

Small Business Resources:

Episode transcript

Xero Gravity Opening: You’ve just tuned into Xero Gravity: a podcast for small business leaders and entrepreneurs across America. Now to your hosts, Gene Marks and Elizabeth Ü.


EÜ: Gene, I’m wondering if you have ever had any problem with
employees in your workplace?

GM: Oh Elizabeth, I specialize in problem employees. My firm, we attract like a magnet. The problem employees come to me and they ultimately leave me as well. I mean there was one guy that I had just a few years ago; he was a real nice guy but he wasn’t performing. You know, in my business we’re all about billable hours, and he was just consistently falling below what billable hours he should be attaining every week. And I remember working closely with him and other people in my company tried to help him as well, but he would make lots of promises and never get there. And it wasn’t just performance, it was like a drain on culture in our company. It had a big impact on all of us.

EÜ: Well, let’s hope he’s found a better cultural fit and maybe some…

GM: Yes.

EÜ: …kind of a role where billable hours aren’t as important.

Welcome to Xero Gravity. As you may have gathered we’re going to be talking about how to handle problem employees, and we have Nancy Reagle joining us. She is VP of Human Services at the National Association of Manufacturers. But beyond that she has a very long and colorful career in HR with a variety of different organizations, primarily trade organizations in Washington DC. We’re very excited to hear what she had to say about how to handle — well, first how to identify problem employees — and then what to do once you’ve figured out that there’s some sort of a challenge you need to overcome.

So we’ll be back in just a few minutes to talk to Nancy Reagle.

Guest Soundbite: I had an employee come to work with a machete in his backpack one time, and the receptionist told me that he got on the elevator by himself. We were able to get the elevator stopped between floors and call the police.


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GM: Nancy welcome to the show. Thank you for coming on. You have a long history in the world of human resources. How long have you been doing this?

NR: Over 25 years, and primarily working for small trade associations located here in DC. So I’m very familiar with the small business HR model, if you will.

EÜ: So how did you get into HR in the first place?

NR: Very interestingly, it was kind of a matter of eliminating things I didn’t like to do. I actually graduated from George Madison- James Madison University in Harrisonburg, with a degree in dietetics, and worked in a nursing home for a while. I didn’t particularly enjoy that. So I moved into food service when I was a general manager at a restaurant and decided that my life was too short to work seven days, a week 24 hours a day, and eventually moved into working in office management, working for a director of human resources. And I thought, oh, I kind of like her job.

So little by little, going back to school, getting my masters and kind of continuing to trade up (if you will) in positions, I found out that I really, really do love HR.

It’s much more nuanced with understanding the organization’s business objectives and mission and then aligning the appropriate talent and procedures and processes and technologies to support that. So for me it’s much more strategic and much less tactical or paperwork driven. Yes, there are rules and regulations you have to pay attention to, and be in compliance with, and yes, there’s a lot of paperwork that gets pushed around if you’re dealing with benefits and stuff. But really at my level it’s more strategic.

EÜ: You have a very long history in the world of HR and I’m wondering — I’m just picturing you and your siblings, and you’re kind of delegating all of the tasks that need to happen around the house. So do you have siblings?

NR: I do, three sisters, no brothers. So I learned how to negotiate very early because I was never first in line for anything, and really had to negotiate and be persuasive to get anything.

GM: Do you think good HR people come from larger families with many siblings?

NR: Me personally, I think good HR people have children.

EÜ: Oh.

GM: [Laughs]

NR: Because you understand human nature a little better in the workplace, and you kind of see how all kinds of behavior is worked out. So by my having two kids I definitely had a different view of human behavior and perhaps bad behavior in the workplace.

GM: Nancy, are you comparing some of your employees to children, is that what I hear already?

EÜ: [Laughs]

GM: [Laughs]

NR: Ah, unfortunately that is the way of the world at times. You’d like to think we’re all grownups, but not always.

EÜ: So even for small businesses there’s always something that comes up that they have to handle in terms of HR issues. And on today’s show we’re going to be talking about handling difficult employees. So just to start off the bat, how would you define a difficult employee?

NR: Okay, so my definition is not going to be found in any textbook, I can tell you that right now.

EÜ: I bet this isn’t in any textbook.

NR: But the difficult employee… yeah, it is the truth though. The difficult employee is the one who sucks the life out of your organization or your team, who consumes about 90% of your energy trying to get them to perform, or conform to your culture. So basically they’re your time-suck employees. They’re the ones you’re spending the most energy on and getting the least out of.

EÜ: So what’s fascinating about what you just said is that it’s something about conforming to your culture, and I think when we were planning this show, that was one of the things that really stuck with me. It’s like well, how often is a problem employee a problem employee? Or just a cultural misfit? And is that so bad when you’re talking about having people conform to your culture? That sounds a little scary to me.

NR: Yeah, so let’s back it up a little bit. When you’re talking an employee and someone who may not be working out for whatever reason, there’s usually two parts to it. Either not performing the task that you’re given them because of lack of ability, skills or knowledge, or they’re not behaving in a way that’s productive to the work environment — and that’s where I’m talking about fitting in with your culture.

EÜ: Ah, gotcha!

NR: Conform may be too strong a word. But someone who’s not fitting in with your culture — and when you have a cultural misfit, again, you’re losing productivity — you’re losing money because you’re not getting the best that you can get out of that individual. And that individual could be affecting others within the organization. So it really is a drain on the organization to have either one. To have someone who’s an underperformer who’s just not going to get there, or to have someone who is being counter-productive to the work environment, and the culture that the company wants to have.

GM: I mean how do you balance that? Have you ever seen that in your career, any examples?

NR: Oh yeah. I’ve seen it quite a lot and it really has to start from the top as to, do you — what is the culture you want, and how do you want your employees to behave together? And quite frankly our performance measurements measure both. You can do a great job and be productive, but if you’re not a team player, you’re not going to succeed in our environment. So when we’re evaluating performance we’re looking at the what that the employee does and the how. And the how to us is as, or more important than the what. Because we can always get someone who can come in and learn the skills, have the knowledge, and be trained on the task. It’s really the how that we’re screening for, to make sure that we’ve got the right person and the right fit for our culture.

EÜ: And how do you screen for that? It sounds like these are some more — slightly intangible things — that might be more difficult to have, for instance: a fill in the blank on a form.

NR: Yeah, it’s – it’s a couple of things. One is to understand the culture that you want to have within your organization and to have something that is very well known, very stated, with very tangible behavioral aspects to that culture. And then when you’re interviewing, it’s based on those behavioral questions. You want to see how well they’re going to fit. You want to see examples of when was the last time they went out and did a random act of kindness, or when they really chipped in and did something meaningful on a team.

You’re really looking at behaviors versus their knowledge at interview time. And again, and we’re looking at those behaviors all along the spectrum of their career. We feel very strongly that a strong culture that’s well articulated, that supports your mission, is really as important as having the correct knowledge and skillset.

GM: You know, Nancy, for small business, how big do you need to be before you really should consider hiring somebody you know in the HR role?

NR: I think anything with 50 or more employees, because that’s almost the litmus test for when you have compliance issues, and I think you really want someone who wears two hats. One who wears the business hat and understands the objectives of the organization and where they want to go, but also is that employee advocate. Now I understand some businesses may not be able to afford a full time HR person, with just 50 employees, but I think certainly by the time you get to 80 employees, you definitely need that position.

GM: You know, I have a client, he’s – you know, he’s a roofer. He’s got 10 employees. He’s got a guy that they hired and it was a bad hire. Although the employee himself is productive, he’s a disruptive person in the office — he doesn’t work out with the culture. But at the time, to replace somebody like that, you know, it’s so expensive and disruptive to get rid of somebody. Is there a compromise, I mean would you have any advice for somebody like that, who’s trying to manage a disruptive or difficult employee without cutting them loose?

NR: Yeah, I think again it goes back to stating the importance of not just the what the employee’s doing, but the how and helping the employee understand that the how is actually being counterproductive to what they’re trying to accomplish. And quite frankly, if it’s counterproductive, it’s affecting profitability. So in the end, if the person can understand that their behavior has tangible impacts on the bottom line, and if they could just be more aware and try harder to accept what the company is trying to drive throughout the organization in terms of their culture, that’s very important. Sometimes it’s as simple as that: tying it to the bottom line.

EÜ: Also I’m thinking about a lot of small businesses that I know, and people might not necessarily have a lot of management skill, and particularly around this part of management. I mean there’s very few people who are truly skilled at effective problem solving when it comes down to things like, you know, interpersonal challenges or a cultural misfit. So what’s a good way for especially small business managers to identify and name the problems that they’re seeing while also giving the employee a chance to make the situation right?

NR: Well I think that, you know, a manager in a small business needs to be very comfortable with conflict and being able to deal with conflict, because that’s really what your disruptive employee or cultural misfit employee is doing to the work environment. And being able to confront the employee to have a constructive conversation with the employee — and again, it’s counseling — and trying to lay out very clear performance standards for that person. So they understand, again, the what and the how. It’s not just what they do but how they do it that’s so important to the company’s success.

I mean it’s not just a singular incident where the employee’s isolated and not affecting other people. So the sooner the supervisor can address it, they’re going to be viewed as a stronger leader, they’re going to be viewed as being fair, they’re going to be viewed as, you know, holding the same standards for everybody. And that all adds to a positive work environment. The flipside to it is you don’t address it and you allow the behavior to continue, which isn’t productive. To the other employees: that’s very demoralizing for them.

GM: Nancy, who comes to mind as, you know, the most difficult person or employee you’ve had to deal with, and how did you deal with that person? What did you learn?

NR: Yeah, the most difficult employee actually walked out on the job, and she was on a performance improvement plan. We knew that we had come to the decision to let her go, and we literally couldn’t get in touch with her.

EÜ: Oh no.

NR: There was, she wasn’t answering phone calls, she wasn’t coming to work, she happened to be posting some things on Facebook and LinkedIn that were very derogatory to the company, and actually kind of hostile in a violent way.

EÜ: Oh no.

NR: So literally the only way I could reach out to her was via email, and of course the minute I sent her an email trying to talk about her employment situation, she put it all out on social media as the worst way to be fired. Lessons learned on that one? I’m not really sure because when you have someone who’s refusing to communicate with you, and they know that it’s kind of the end of the game for them, there’s not too many strategies I have to deal with that kind of a hostile situation. And social media is so easy to put stuff out there that’s not true. It’s unfortunate but… .

EÜ: And how did you rebound from that? I’m sure other people saw that?

NR: We got through it. I think our reputation stands for itself; one disgruntled employee isn’t going to change that we are an in- demand employer. We don’t lack for people wanting to apply and work here. So the one-offs, you know, it happens, it’s not pleasant. But it reflected more poorly on her than it did on us.

EÜ: Right, and I imagine just even trying to respond to that, you’ll get embroiled in something a lot more public than it needs to be.

NR: Yeah, and the fact there was a violent aspect to it was particularly troubling. We did have to have some security, extra security here to make sure that she wasn’t going to come through with her threat of coming over with guns and things like that. So it was a difficult time.

GM: Was that the only time in your world of HR that you’ve ever felt potentially physically threatened?

NR: No, I had an employee come to work with a machete in his backpack one time.

EÜ: Oh my gosh!

NR: And the receptionist told me that he got on the elevator by himself, and we were able to get the elevator stopped between floors and call the police.

EÜ: Oh my gosh!

NR: So, it happens.

EÜ: I mean short of bringing a machete to work, are there some other signs that can help you identify a problem employee?

NR: Yeah, I think a lot of the signs come with attendance. Problem employees usually have poorer attendance than a good performing employee. If they’re constantly bad mouthing the company and very negative and resisting change, you can tell by their attitude that there’s just something not right. And again, that’s where the early intervention by the supervisor is critical because you might be able to turn that around, and you might be able to get that employee to kind of see the work world in a different way. But the longer that festers, the worse it is for the entire organization.

GM: So Nancy, what steps have you, did you take to, you know, to work with that person specifically?

NR: Yeah, a couple of things. Like it really depends on the situation. The first part of it is really having that conversation with the employee, because it’s only fair to them that you point out what they’re not meeting expectations for. And again, it could be that they’re meeting performance expectations but not meeting the cultural expectations. If the behavior doesn’t change and it continues to be disruptive, the next step would — from our perspective — is to follow our discipline procedures pretty thoroughly. it would be something written within a performance improvement plan, with concrete steps to help the individual know what exactly they need to be doing, to be meeting performance expectations.

If that doesn’t work the next step is generally to move him out the door.How we move him out the door is varies upon the situation. We try to do it as decently and humanely as possible respecting that person’s dignity. And if in the end this culture isn’t the right fit for that person, that’s the best outcome for everybody involved. So we could do it with a couple weeks of notice, we could do it with some severance — depending on the situation. We generally do it in such a way that we’re helping the person maintain their dignity, so that they can go on and be productive in looking for another job.

Me personally, I help them make contacts or I might review their resume. I try to do whatever it takes to help them to move on to a better place, because certainly the person who is not fitting in culturally within your organization, they’re not happy either. And life’s too short to be in a job where you’re not happy.

EÜ: So I imagine that despite all these steps, that you’re taking to help. I mean I love how you describe respecting people’s dignity and helping them even make contacts or reviewing their resume so that they can make…

NR: Yes.

EÜ: …a better, or find a place that’s a better fit for them. Not everyone is going to respond positively. So how do you feel when something doesn’t go quite right, or if they’re not responding in a way that you might hope?

NR: Yeah, that happens occasionally. From my perspective, the bottom line is I have to protect the company. So from my perspective I stick to a pretty narrow script when I’m dealing with employees, even if they’re upset, they’re angry, they’re lashing out. I definitely keep to my script, I keep calm. Again, having raised two boys who threw temper tantrums — I’m used to being kind of the calming force in them, there’s still the tempers so…

EÜ: But that’s still got to affect you personally. I mean even if you can’t veer from the script, that’s got to be a punch in the guts somehow in the background?

NR: It is, and my ultimate goal is to try and reach through that emotion with that person to say, “Hey I’m here to help, you know, you’re not going to do this alone, this is not the end of the line for you,” you know, “let’s try to make this productive because the next step I can certainly help you.” And eventually they kind of come around to it. There’s very few people that I’ve had those difficult conversations with who haven’t taken me up on my offer of assistance.

GM: There’s so much that you have to deal with, with difficult employees. So much is psychological. It’s not even technical work. Do you have any recommendations for business owners where, if they were interested, either something to read or a course to take, or some way they can educate themselves in better managing their employees? Where do you go to get your education and attain your skills?

NR: Yeah, there’s a couple of places. I’m a member of SHRM, which is the Society for Human Resources Management. They have a lot of best practices on their website, membership is relatively low cost. Then there’s also the Supervisor’s Legal Update by Business and Legal Review, which is an excellent publication that comes out weekly, that has all kinds of management tools, management stories, a lot of compliance and regulatory information. So that’s almost a one-stop HR shop right there and it’s called the Supervisor’s Legal Update.

EÜ: Thank you for those.

NR: And it’s not expensive either. Very low cost. Both of those alternatives are very low cost and great tools.

EÜ: I’m wondering if you’ve seen any situations where the so-called problem employee was actually indicative of a larger cultural problem in the workplace itself. I mean, I have to imagine that sometimes when these conflicts come to light they can get resolved in such a way that the employee stays and the company is better for the experience?

NR: Yes, sometimes you can have maybe someone in your key management team that’s not really fitting into the culture, who is condoning unfair behavior or unfair practices that’s causing problems, and someone may be affected by it that kind of outlives that particular supervisor. I’ve seen it kind of go in that direction.

EÜ: I’m very curious about what you said about how sometimes that problem employee is in fact reporting directly to the person who might actually be the problem. So if the manager is the problem and you’re the one trying to figure out what’s really going on, what are some questions that you can ask that employee? And then similarly, if you are that employee that’s being wrongly accused of being the problem, how can you make sure that you’re proactively (but also diplomatically) pointing out that the problem might be above you?

Because I know so many people leave their jobs because of a bad relationship with their manager, and obviously someone in your role would want to prevent that.

NR: Well, in HR we usually say a person leaves the manager, not the – not the job or the company.

EÜ: Exactly!

NR: And some – yeah. And in the case of, if it’s the manager who’s not necessarily upholding the values and the best practices that the company would like to have, the employee could go to HR to have that conversation. I would say if upper level management isn’t willing to address the issue with that particular supervisor, there’s probably no solution to that situation. The employee would either have to make a decision to stick it out and stay, or to look for something else. It really depends on how upper management would treat that particular supervisor. I would hope they wouldn’t tolerate it, but it does happen.

EÜ: But how could you as an employee bring, I mean here we’re talking about the fact that good managers are good at handling conflict and they confront the situation and try to have a productive conversation. Can the employee have that conversation with their manager even if HR isn’t willing to do anything about it?

NR: I would hope that HR would be willing to do something about it. But I always tell employees that you kind of have to draw your own lines, that if HR draws the line for you with your supervisor, it’s not really meaningful. But the employee has to draw that line with their supervisor, and quite frankly that’s probably the first step. And then it’s up to the employee to gauge whether the supervisor is honoring that line.

But if I had a manager who was doing something that I didn’t particularly appreciate or I felt was demeaning to myself or was really bothering me, I would go have that conversation with my manager. My manager would respect me for having at least brought it to his or her attention, and to have an opportunity to speak about it. Some managers get very touchy if they go to HR first and HR is aware of the problem before they are.

I mean we’re all human. We’d like to have adult face-to-face honest conversations and to hopefully work something out so that both parties are happy.

GM: Have you ever been in a situation where you’re sitting in the room and the manager and the employee are having it out because each person thinks that they’re the one that’s at fault and you’re sort of mediating?

NP Yep. Been there, done that.

GM: [Laughs]

NR: And that you know, that’s really listening skills. You have to try to listen to what each other is saying, and then try to find common ground to agree on. And hopefully if you’re good at that, you can get them there, but sometimes they may not be willing to listen to each other. They may have already dug their heels in too deep. I view my role in HR, in those cases, is just to find that common language and kind of consensus where they can both agree on something.

GM: So let’s talk about termination next. When it comes time to terminate an employee, a difficult employee, what recommendations do you have — personal and legal and HR— that a business owner should be aware of?

NR: Yeah, the first is just make sure you’re following your own disciplinary policies so that you can’t be accused of doing something differently for the employee who you’re going to be terminating. You don’t want them to be able to come back and say, well I got treated differently or I was discriminated against. Second is to make sure it’s really clear and you’ve got good documentation. If you’ve got the availability of legal counsel— that they’ve reviewed the facts and agree with the decision— the next step then really is to be prepared for that conversation with the employee and again, I go by a script. I usually either for the or the immediate supervisor, will have a script. I’ll have a script, and we tag team together so that the decision is going to be communicated by the immediate supervisor. Then once that’s communicated to the employee, the immediate supervisor leaves and the rest of the conversation on how the separation is going to take place, is with me. And that usually diffuses the situation with the employee. They realize I didn’t make the decision; they realize that the decision is final, and they realize that I’m there now to help them kind of grasp what needs to be done and kind of move on.

GM: You’ve been in HR for so long, What have you learned?

NR: You know the biggest takeaway I’d like to have from this conversation would be, is that poor performance and bad attitude just suck the life out of a company. So you’ve got to hit it and address it early on. The sooner you address it, the better off you’re going to be as a company, the better off the people who work there, and it could, again be the right thing for the person even if they do have to eventually leave the company.
I think the other thing I’ve learned is with open communication: don’t hope that something is going to go away or just resolve itself on its own, it never does. It’s that early intervention, it’s being honest. Dealing with the employee with integrity and understanding that if you don’t do that it has a negative impact on others throughout the organization.

To the last point: hire the right people and hire based on the cultural fit versus just looking at skillset. That will save time, energy, money. It’s really the way to go. And again, the way you get at that is by looking at the behaviors you want that make you successful as a company and hire for those behaviors.

EÜ: I love that. Thank you so much for joining us.

GM: Thanks Nancy.

NR: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

GM: So Elizabeth, I was just reading online recently that researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina said they have printed, they’ve created a 3D printer, Elizabeth. Get ready, that can produce organs, tissues and bones that could theoretically be implanted into living human beings. 3D printed body parts. Now we have yet to be able to 3D print those perfect employees, to avoid the difficult employees that we were talking about.

EÜ: Hahaha, right.


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GM: If you have any questions you’d like answered on the show…

EÜ: ...tweet us at Xero using the hashtag #XeroGravity. Or, text us your

questions, to 415-813-9878. We’ll answer them on next week’s show!


EÜ: Make sure you tune in next week for the next episode of Xero Gravity, because we have someone who’s very special to me! Michael Schumann actually wrote the foreword to my book, and he is an expert in raising money for communities. Michael is going to be telling us all about raising money from your community, and he’ll also be telling us about some of the things we can do to take advantage of the new crowdfunding laws. So join us next week and we’ll see you there.


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