How do you manage a disruptive employee?

26 July 2017

Bob Thomson, Professor of Practice in the Organisation & Human Resource Management group, is an experienced management and leadership coach. Here he reveals how to handle an employee whose negativity is upsetting the team.

You may find it useful to think of handling the situation in one of four ways, each of which involves having focused conversations.

Begin by enquiring if there is something going on in the individual’s life that is problematic and is causing them to be so negative. They may have family, health or money worries, for instance, that are constantly on their mind. 

If this is the underlying cause, then you might have supportive conversations that help them adopt a better attitude at work. If the underlying issue is a personal one, then you might encourage the individual to seek appropriate professional help – this is likely to be well outside the boundary of what you yourself can help them with in a work context.

If there isn’t an underlying cause – or if they’re not willing to admit this to you – then the second approach is to explain clearly to them the nature of your concerns. 

Related course: MSc Management

It may be that they are unaware of the impact they’re having, they may be sincerely sorry about this, and may wish to change their behaviour.

If this is the case, then you can continue to have coaching conversations with them that help them to become more aware and to take personal responsibility for changing their attitude and behaviour.

But you can only coach someone who wants to be coached. If - and this might be the most likely case - the person is unwilling to acknowledge that their behaviour is inappropriate or is unwilling to do anything to change, then coaching won’t work.

How should you reprimand an employee?

Then, you need to have a fierce conversation with them. This term, taken from the title of a book by Susan Scott, means having a robust, honest conversation that gets to the heart of the matter.

Spell out to the individual what you are concerned with, giving a few examples and highlighting the impact on the people around them and on the performance of the team.

State clearly what is at stake, and tell them in no uncertain terms how you want them to behave differently. And tell them what the consequences will be if they don’t change their ways. 

This conversation is likely to be difficult. Most people don’t like conflict - though, some do - and it can be easy to avoid the conversation. But, if you avoid it, then the situation will continue to trouble everyone. 

You need to get their agreement on how they will behave differently. You then need to monitor things to ensure that they are in fact doing so. The odd slip might still occur, but hopefully they will be trying hard to fit in more positively with the team.

If they don’t agree to change - or if they agree but don’t actually deliver on this - then you are likely to have to go down a formal performance management route.

How do you dismiss an employee?

You may work in an organisation where it is relatively easy to dismiss people, or you may work in one whose processes mean that you’re setting out on a two-year journey that’s going to cost you time, effort and stress. 

But, if the problem’s that bad, you may have to grit your teeth and embark on it. Realise that this is going to be a tough experience for you.

Check out how your own manager is going to support you, and check with your HR people what the organisation’s position is and what support you can expect from HR.

Bob Thomson teaches Leadership on the Full-time MBA and Distance Learning MBA, on which he also lectures on Management of Change and Organisational Behaviour. He also teaches People and Organisations on the suite of MSc Business course and MSc Management. Plus, he lectures on Critical Issues in Management and Styles of Coaching and Team Leadership on the Undergraduate programme.