Most of you know your way around a toolbox very well. If you didn’t, you’d be doing something else for a living. At some point, though, you are likely to find yourself in a predicament they don’t teach in trade schools and apprenticeship classes. It’s how to cope with the most complicated machinery any of us will ever confront-human beings.

Most of you know your way around a toolbox very well. If you didn’t, you’d be doing something else for a living.

At some point, though, you are likely to find yourself in a predicament they don’t teach in trade schools and apprenticeship classes. It’s how to cope with the most complicated machinery any of us will ever confront-human beings. People who are good at what they do tend to rise in the ranks, and as you come up through the ranks of your trade you will probably end up with a responsibility for which you have zero training. That is managing people.

This is an enormously complicated subject. The world of big business is mainly about managing people and many books have been written about the subject. What I will do here in this short space is touch on some basics of people management applicable to both large and small companies, and in particular a topic likely to crop up at some point with anyone who has supervisory responsibilities. That is dealing with difficult employees.

You know the ones I’m referring to. They are the gossips and rumor spreaders. They are the ones who are always badmouthing supervisors, co-workers or customers. They are unhappy people who always see the glass as half empty. Their constant negativity poisons the workplace atmosphere.

Major problems with malcontents present a pretty straightforward solution. Get rid of them. But that may be a difficult decision if the person is competent and productive at a job or has some special skill that is hard to come by. What you need to weigh is not only the business value of that individual, but the drag on productivity and morale of everyone else in the company. This includes managerial time spent addressing the problems caused by a sour personality. A company’s success depends on more than one superstar.

Some may not be all that disruptive. Maybe they just have a bad habit that makes them unpleasant to be around, like issues with personal hygiene, inappropriate dress or vulgar language. Maybe they are smokers who reek of tobacco to the irritant of non-smokers who must work only a few feet away. Maybe they unconsciously drum their fingers or hum to the annoyance of those around them. Their bad habit can be tolerated until others start complaining about it. Then you need to act.


Nobody likes having a conversation with an employee about a subject that makes both of you squirm. Some of you may have an inkling of how to do this based on those uncomfortable birds-and-bees discussions with your young children. The difficult conversations referred to here have a lot in common with confronting the facts of life. The main word that comes to mind is embarrassing.

First you need to document the disruptive behavior, then confront the employee about it, giving him or her specific instructions and a time frame for correcting the action. Example: apologize to someone who was unfairly maligned, and do it by Friday or else you’re fired. If the disruptive behavior persists, most of you probably will figure out instinctively when enough is enough. Just be sure to document all the incidents and your responses in case the fired employee takes legal action against you.

All negative conversations are uncomfortable, but those dealing with performance issues are fairly straightforward. When people don’t perform to expectations or did something wrong, it’s up to you to set them straight. Your tone may vary from stern to kind, depending on the severity and frequency of the problem but it’s all about business.

The more difficult conversations are those that concern personal matters. It may have to do with personal hygiene, inappropriate dress, vulgar language, gossip, a bad attitude, or any number of other personal behaviors that co-workers or customers find offensive. It’s especially difficult to address such matters with an otherwise exemplary performer. You don’t want to say anything that might cause performance to decline or a top performer to leave. At the same time, anything that causes business associates or customers to feel uneasy can be said to disrupt optimal performance.

Trade professionals are renowned for being gruff straight talkers. That’s not anything to be ashamed of, and it provides effective communication for most of your job-related tasks that need to be accomplished. Dealing with sensitive issues of human behavior requires more tact, however. Here are some tips from human resource professionals about how to conduct difficult conversations about unacceptable personal habits or behavior.

Seek the employee’s permission to provide feedback. Even though you’re the employee’s manager, start by letting the person know you have some feedback you’d like to share and arrange a meeting. Don’t have this conversation in front of other co-workers.

Ease into the conversation. Let the person know that this discussion you are about to have will be difficult for both of you. It’s not easy to talk to someone about taking a shower every day!

Don’t pass the buck. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to provide feedback to your staff even if it’s an issue you don’t want to address. Don’t dodge your responsibility by stating you’re doing this only because a number of other people have complained. This only intensifies the embarrassment and makes the person receiving the feedback more defensive. If it’s their concern, it’s your concern as well.

Don’t beat around the bush. Choose your words carefully, but don’t get so hung up on euphemisms that the employee doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Example: “You’ve used some language around women working in this company that they find offensive, and it needs to stop.”

Come prepared with facts. Document as specifically as possible the times and places the disruptive behavior occurred. This will minimize those “no I didn’t” defenses that are the natural reaction to accusations.

State the consequences. Don’t assume that the employee understands why the behavior cited is a problem. For instance, with the previous example, using vulgar language is not only offensive to many people, it creates an atmosphere that could lead to sexual harassment lawsuits, or cause valued employees to seek a job elsewhere. Bad body odor contributes to bad morale and could reduce productivity. Slovenly dress compromises the company’s image as an industry leader, and so on.

Conclude on a positive note. Tell the person the positive impact that changing the behavior will have on his/her overall job evaluation. Anyone can make mistakes, but it’s a sign of good character to rectify mistakes and show improvement.

Reach an agreement about what the individual will do to change the behavior. Set a due date-tomorrow, in some cases. Set a time frame to review the progress if needed. For example, if the employee is dressing inappropriately, let the person know that starting tomorrow, wearing jean shorts/halter tops/whatever will not be permitted. This is easier to do if you already have a company dress code in writing, and the behavior cited violated that code. If not, it’s time to put it in writing for all to see, not just the individual who was called to task. Without a written policy, that individual could be justified in complaining that you’re only “picking” on him.

Document the discussion. This needs to be included in the employee’s file and can be used as a reference for future conversations.

Follow up. Most people when confronted will shape up for awhile, but it’s hard to break bad habits and slipping back into the old mode of behavior is common. If the behavior resurfaces, confront it immediately. Depending on the situation, disciplinary action may be called for.

Don’t let these situations linger for months. While it may be uncomfortable for you to address these behavioral issues, rest assured it doesn’t get any easier with time.

Also, don’t forget that all disciplinary conversations and actions become easier if you can fall back on written rules of behavior. After all, it’s hard to call someone on the carpet for inappropriate dress if what’s appropriate isn’t spelled out in an employee handbook. The same goes with abusive/vulgar language, personal hygiene and so on. Spell out, in writing, what’s expected from every employee and make it a condition of continued employment with your company. W&C