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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Do You Have a Bad Employee, or Are You a Bad Boss?

It’s a classic he-said, she-said situation: You say you have a bad employee; he says he has a bad manager.

So, who’s right? After all, there are plenty of managers out there who yell at their teams, who feel a little too much self-righteous boss power, and who don’t actually manage at all. Of course, there are also employees who slack off, disrespect authority, and don’t have any interest in the job beyond the paycheck.

As a manager, it can be easy to dismiss the problem as the employee, but it’s important to realize that in almost every situation, there’s another side to the story. Sure, your employee may have some negative traits (don’t we all?)—but could you also be enforcing those less-than-ideal habits inadvertently through the way you’re managing?

To finally put the end to the argument, consider these common situations to see how the problem could go either way—and how to tell the difference in order to provide the most appropriate solution.

The Problem: He Doesn’t Meet Deadlines

It’s one of the most frustrating moments for a manager: You approach an employee to ask about the assignment due today, and he looks at you with a blank stare: “Oh, I completely forgot about that—it’s not done yet.”

And when this becomes a habit—when he can’t seem to get anything done without a deadline extension or incessant excuses about why it’s not complete—it becomes absolutely infuriating.

The Two Sides

You may chalk up missed deadlines to chronic procrastination or even issues with authority, but it’s not always an inherent employee problem.

Consider this: Maybe he delays because he’s not confident in the work he’s turning in. He’s not sure he’s doing it right or that it’s what you’re looking for. This can be managed quite easily by setting up checkpoints leading up to deadlines of big assignments—at least until he feels confident that he can complete the work on his own.

This could also point to your own communication issues. Is the employee confused about what to do or when it’s supposed to be done? I once had a boss who constantly sent me rambling emails that said things like, “We may want to do a press release on this recent achievement; I’m not sure what exactly should go in it, but it could be good to get our name out there. We’ll have to think about it.” A week later, he’d ask me where the draft was. And I, unaware that I’d actually be assigned to write this press release, was empty-handed.

Make sure you’re having open conversations with your employees and providing everything your employee needs to actually get the work done by the time it’s due—if that checks out, then the employee and his time management may be to blame.

The Problem: She Doesn’t Get Along with Others

Every manager wants a team that gets along—one that becomes almost like family, where everyone works together to accomplish great things. That’s why it’s so important for managers to get a good feel for a prospective employee’s personality during the interview.

So it can be borderline devastating when that employee you spent weeks pushing through the interview, hiring, and onboarding process just doesn’t seem to mesh.

The Two Sides

When there’s a disruption in the team, it’s important to look for the root of the problem. For example, are other employees complaining about this person’s inherent qualities—like that she’s argumentative or doesn’t do her share of the teamwork? You could have a problem employee on your hands, one who simply doesn’t want to get along with the rest of the team.

But other habits may point to something that’s more about her individual working style. Maybe she’s an introvert and does better work alone than when she’s asked to collaborate with a group. You may not be able to separate her for every project, so it can be helpful to know exactly how she works best—so you can integrate that in your projects and assignments.

The Problem: You Can’t Count on Her

Your employee is constantly late, doesn’t deliver what she says she will, and is constantly making excuses for her behavior. Enough said.

The Two Sides

While one look at this could make you think, well, this is obviously an employee issue, the real question is, why haven’t you, as a manager, addressed these issues already?

If you aren’t immediately confronting employee issues like these when they’re happening and outlining your expectations for the future, then it’s likely nothing will change. Yes, the issue boils down to the employee’s habits, which are in his or her control—but when people aren’t admonished for poor behavior, it’s not going to change.

If, however, you have addressed these things head-on, then the spotlight is back on the employee.

The Problem: His Work Isn’t Improving

A new employee’s work may not exceed expectations right away—but as a manager, you usually expect that. It may take a new hire some time to learn your department processes, figure out the job responsibilities, and learn how to deliver the work you expect.

So what gives when, months later, the employee’s work hasn’t improved? In your opinion, he should be delivering assignments of a much higher quality, but he’s still turning in projects that have the mark of a brand new hire.

The Two Sides

It could be easy to mark this one up to “he’s just not cutting it,” but the real issue is this: Either you aren’t giving feedback, or he’s not taking it.

If you aren’t offering regular, detailed, and useful feedback, then your employee has nothing to use to improve. He doesn’t know what he’s doing right and what he could be doing better, so he continues to do what he’s currently doing. Of course the work isn’t changing!

The problem falls on the employee if you provide constructive criticism, and he gets defensive or simply refuses to apply the feedback going forward. That’s a sign that he may not be serious about continually improving and doing quality work—which is probably not the kind of employee you want on your team.

In most cases, you see a pattern: It’s your responsibility as the manager to address any issues head-on. Only then can you even consider that it’s a “bad employee” problem.

Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.