Is the Problem the Employee — or You?

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ProblemA friend of mine just became the director of a small healthcare facility. She reports to an area director, who reports to a state director, who reports to a regional director, who reports to some V.P. of Look How Important I Am.

Seriously, this is the Chain of Command.

My friend, Joan, has a 25-year employee on her team — a 25-year problem employee. The employee backstabs and undermines coworkers and managers. Apparently, this has been going on for most of this employee’s 25 years. Joan’s regional director used to be in Joan’s position. On the day the regional director left, she told Joan that she hoped she (Joan) could figure out what to do about things. And laughed.

Joan and I were talking, and she gave me several examples of the kinds of games and backstabbing the employee engages in. What irked me most was that some of the things this employee would do could also put the safety of clients/patients in jeopardy.

After a 15 minute conversation, I changed the topic to Joan’s dog. Because Joan is going to do nothing. Because her boss did nothing. And probably the one before her did nothing, and the previous one did nothing, and one before that did nothing, and for all I know the person who is now V.P. of Look How Important I Am also did nothing.

Becoming the ‘Problem Employee’

Many, many, many, many years ago, a manager, noticing my unhappiness, said to me, “Perhaps this isn’t the place for you to work, Rich.”

Ouch! (and a few choice expletives) went through my head.

But she was right. It wasn’t the place for me to work — any longer. The company had recently taken off in a completely new direction, and that direction wasn’t for me. What I had loved about the company was that employees were given entrepreneurial freedoms. That had been replaced with layers of management, and new rules and policies were being issued by the minute. Everything you did needed to be approved. What was once an open-door policy right up to the CEO was replaced by wrist-slappings if you didn’t go through the chain.

AlcoholYou see, I had become the “problem employee.” Not because I was backstabbing or undermining people, but because I wasn’t following the new rules — the new rules that didn’t work for me.

I resigned not long after the manager’s comment.

You — the Supervisor — Are Part of the Problem

Joan doesn’t want to confront the 25-year problem employee because:

  1. The employee does a good job.
  2. The employee is friends with Joan’s boss.
  3. The employee has a lot of history with the company that can help Joan (although I found out in 15 minutes that she has withheld information to make Joan look bad).
  4. Joan doesn’t want to create friction with the other team members — some who like the problem employee, some who despise her.

In almost every instance where friends and/or clients have told me about problem employees, I have concluded that the problem is not the employee — it’s the employer.

Yes, read that again.

Okay, let me clarify: the problem started with the employer. Guidelines and expectations were not set. One-time instances became two, became three, became 25 years of instances. We hear about improvement plans, and regular conversations, and coaching and mentoring, and reassigning work to keep the problem employee away from others. Some employees are even given “special projects.” We hear about 60-, 90-, and 180-day follow-ups and reviews.

Stop Sign

The problem is not only with the employee. The problem is with the leadership and with a system that allowed the problem to happen and continue to happen. This is not an isolated problem employee; this is a problem throughout the organization!

Recently, I was hired by a client to come spend a morning with his team. We held Recess, and it became clear where the communication, collaboration, and teamwork were broken and breaking down. It all started with Don, the executive director.

But here’s the good news: when Don contacted me, he had shared that he probably held about 80 percent of the blame for problems at his company and was ready to fix things. And while Don did mention to me that there was one problem employee during our initial conversation, ultimately we realized there were two.

The best thing that ever happened to me was that comment from my manager. So today, my comment for you — if you are the supervisor of a problem employee — is this:

I think you might need to look at who really created the problem with your problem employee.


By Rich DiGirolamo