How to Manage Rotten Employees

June 29, 2011
When difficult employees are poor performers, you send them packing. The real dilemma is when the bad apples are irreplaceable.

Michael Feuer, co-founder and former CEO of OfficeMax, has learned many lessons about dealing with difficult employees. One of them is there's no need to waste your time with difficult personalities who also are lousy workers.

"It's best to let them know straightaway that they aren't a good fit for your organization," says Feuer, author of the new book "The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business and Outwit the Competition."

The real conundrum, Feuer says, is when the difficult employees "are terrific and get the job done." It's even worse when everyone -- including you -- believes the rotten apples are irreplaceable.

In his new book, Feuer concludes that a leader is most likely to succeed when his or her management style resembles that of a benevolent dictator.

The "dictator" side of you calls the shots and makes the difficult decisions, but your "benevolent" side does so while putting the interests of the organization, your team and your customers ahead of your own.

Feuer (pronounced "Foyer"): Dealing with difficult but productive employees requires managers to emphasize their strengths while addressing their shortcomings.This means reining in your hard-to-handle employees while still developing their talents, Feuer says.

"Once you identify an employee who is good, but whose personality or habits might present a problem, you have two choices," Feuer says. "You can simply get rid of the troublesome employee and risk the consequences of lost productivity. Or you can take the more profitable route and find a way for peaceful coexistence by learning how to deal with the performer's shortcomings while taking advantage of his or her strengths."

Feuer offers strategies for dealing with three types of difficult workers: the Prima Donna; Mr. or Mrs. "It's Not My Job"; and the Perfectionist.

The Prima Donna

The Prima Donna is a worker who delivers when you need him but then demands to be coddled and treated like a celebrity for his accomplishments. This behavior consumes your time, disturbs day-to-day operations and alienates other team members.

The easiest solution, Feuer says, is to put your cards on the table.

Emphasize how valuable the employee is and how grateful you are for his work, but let him know that his behavior needs to change -- or else.

"Make him a part of the solution by putting the onus on him to come up with a fix for a peaceful and productive coexistence," advises Feuer. "Allow him to win, but on your terms, not his. Remember that most prima donnas are typically OK people deep down inside. Usually, their egos have been stroked too much in the past, or they're hiding a major inferiority complex -- or both."

The Mr. or Mrs. 'It's Not My Job'

This type of employee performs all of the duties in her job description -- and nothing more. When she is asked to go above and beyond, expand her role or pitch in on another project, she responds with, "It's not my job."

Feuer's advice: Leaders need to make it perfectly clear that doing whatever it takes to contribute to the organization's success is a baseline requirement for all employees -- and that transcends job descriptions.

"I have come close to firing employees on the spot for refusing to help on the grounds that the task at hand wasn't their responsibility," Feuer says. "Now, I make sure that every member of my team knows that 'whatever it takes' isn't an option-it's a requirement. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if someone is an administrative assistant or a vice president -- it's all for one and one for all."

The Perfectionist

The Perfectionist is a hard worker who takes great pains to ensure that every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed-every time. He'll continue to tweak a report or project hours after someone else would have declared it complete.

There's nothing wrong with employees having high standards, but perfectionism can go too far. As a leader, Feuer says, you must make sure that your employees don't sacrifice too much time -- or end up failing to achieve anything at all-in a quest for perfection.

"Try to help resident perfectionists distinguish between tasks that must be done to the letter, and those that can be done just adequately enough to move on to the next step or support another initiative," Feuer says. "This is often a learned skill that can be difficult for people-especially those who are fearful of making a misstep -- to embrace at first. Therefore, be very clear and cautious when you're explaining what must be done ... and how much time and energy each task is worth."

About the Author

Josh Cable | Former Senior Editor

Former Senior Editor Josh Cable covered innovation issues -- including trends and best practices in R&D, process improvement and product development. He also reported on the best practices of the most successful companies and executives in the world of transportation manufacturing, which encompasses the aerospace, automotive, rail and shipbuilding sectors. 

Josh also led the IndustryWeek Manufacturing Hall of Fame, IW’s annual tribute to the most influential executives and thought leaders in U.S. manufacturing history.

Before joining IndustryWeek, Josh was the editor-in-chief of Penton Media’s Government Product News and Government Procurement. He also was an award-winning beat reporter for several small newspapers in Northeast Ohio.

Josh received his BFA in creative writing from Bowling Green University, and continued his professional development through course-work at Ohio University and Cuyahoga Community College.

A lifelong resident of the Buckeye State, Josh currently lives in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. When the weather cooperates, you’ll find him riding his bike to work, exercising his green thumb in the backyard or playing ultimate Frisbee.  

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