As a member of Empathia’s Consultation Team, my primary role is to provide objective consultation and collaborative problem-solving with the managers and supervisors of our client companies. As any human resources professional will tell you, the personnel issues that occur in the workplace are as diverse as the people that are employed there.
While it seems that employee drug or alcohol problems continue to account for most of the calls we receive, a close second is likely those that would be considered “anger management” issues. Usually, these calls come in after the employee has had some form of emotional outburst directed at a coworker or supervisor. It’s very important that we get a thorough history during these calls because, based on what we learn, the feedback provided to the supervisor can be very different.
This is often where I will introduce the idea of “states versus traits” to the caller. I think it’s important that the supervisor be aware that, if the outburst may have been the result of a state, it is far more likely that counseling alone may be very helpful. However, in the case of a trait, counseling will have very little impact in and of itself, but will require more collaboration from the supervisor.
For example, if the history indicates that prior to the outburst, the subject employee has generally been considered a good employee, but has recently been under increased stress at or outside of work, then we may determine that this is a transient “state”. Counseling may be very helpful in assisting the person in better coping with the stressor and ameliorate concerns about future outbursts.
On the other hand, if the history indicates that the subject employee has a long history of having problems getting along with coworkers, is viewed as intimidating, subversive or otherwise difficult, it may be indicative of a long-term, enduring “trait”. In this case, a counseling referral could be used to educate the employee about more appropriate ways to get needs met. However, for any long-term change to occur, the supervisor will be the primary change agent by creating behavioral expectations and holding the employee accountable.
To assist the supervisor to set the stage for the desired change, some guidelines are included below.
• “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.” Documentation is of paramount importance, especially with difficult employees. Write down date, time, and content info for every exchange with the employee, whether it seems to relate to the current problem or not.
• When documenting, focus on specific behavior. Avoid using subjective language, like “bad attitude” or “unprofessional”. Instead, write down what was said or done that gave the impression. Was it a comment, a slammed door, or an eye roll?
• When coaching or correcting, ensure that what the employee is being asked to do is S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound).
• Don’t ever assume that you have made yourself clear. Ask the employee to paraphrase what you’ve said and asked for. Avoid relying only on verbal directives; speak them and write them down.
• Be liberal with praise when the employee does well. When dealing with chronically difficult employees, it’s easy to become fixated on the negative and neglect to reinforce the positive.
• Be “strictly business”. Be boring and consistent. Let facts, rather than emotions, determine how you respond to the employee. Emotionality sets the stage for manipulation. Don’t engage in discussions regarding the employee’s life beyond work or yours. When dealing with a difficult personality, “good fences really do make good neighbors” or at least, a less stressful work environment.
• Managing difficult employees can leave even the most seasoned manager feeling off-balance and confused. Monitor how much time you are spending on, and thinking about, the employee and the issue. Stay cognizant of the original issue and goal. Has it mysteriously expanded to include coworkers, the employee’s personal issues, etc? Are you frequently second-guessing your actions or changing your plan and deadlines? Have you begun to violate your usual rules about appropriate boundaries?
When doubts arise or you seem to be spending more time focused on the situation than the employee is spending trying to correct the behavior, that’s the time to get support from a trusted colleague or the Empathia Consultation Team.
Jeff joined Empathia (then NEAS) in 2010. As a Consultation Specialist, he case manages supervisory referrals for job performance, policy violations, and positive drug tests. He has a bachelors in Psychology and a Masters in Counseling Psychology. Jeff is also a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and a Certified Trauma Counselor.