Handling a Problem Employee

Shop owners discuss how to deal with an employee whose attitude is going down the tubes. January 26, 2008

We are having a little problem with an employee. (It is ongoing, but the latest may be the straw that breaks our back.) Last Wednesday, he comes up and tells me he is having financial trouble and had to cancel his health insurance he has through his wife's employer. (He is paid top wage in the shop.) Wondering if we can do anything. Thursday he leaves one hour early. Did not tell us (we do allow them to leave early, but they need to tell us). Friday he comes in the office in the am and says he has to leave early to take his son to a camp and then has his wife's family reunion. He doesn't punch out and leaves before 2:00. (I saw his truck driving away from my office.) Monday comes and he doesn't show up at all. No call, email, fax, smoke signal, etc. Today he shows up and writes on his time card that he wants vacation for Monday. Also shows up with an attitude problem. What should we do? This is not the first time he hasn't shown up without calling.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor K:
Give him a week off to think about life and if he still wants to work for you. Unpaid, of course. If he does not want to work for you, you are better off without him. If he does, this should wake him up and straighten him out. His trouble may have nothing to do with you, but it is affecting you.

From contributor C:
Sounds like he was given a lot more freedom than he deserves and now takes it for granted. Cut your losses and find a replacement. Whenever he is not at his bench, he is costing you dearly! Lost revenue due to no production is money lost, never to be recovered.

From contributor P:
Sit him down and talk to him to find out what is going on. It sounds like he has a problem. If he just gives you attitude or tries to BS you, do what you have to. The danger is in keeping a guy like this and how he will affect the other workers.

From contributor A:
I have had the same thing play out in my shop. I met him at the door the following day and handed the pay I owed him and sent him on his way. If it happens again I will do it all over. It is amazing how much relief you feel when the trouble walks out the door. When an employee doesn't show up for work on a scheduled work day and doesn't bother calling, that tells me he has already quit.

From contributor T:
I would tend to give him the benefit of talking and listening to what his real problem is and then telling him how it is affecting you and the company. Depending on his reaction, your next move should be pretty easy.

From contributor O:
If he has been a good employee for the most part up until now, there could be a problem outside of work (sometimes with work). I have had great luck confronting and trying to help with whatever it may be. This can be a time consuming and expensive approach. But it can be better than retraining/hiring new problems. I had an employee for 7 years and he was great. One day, same thing. After confronting him, I found out about the pending divorce. Stuck it out for two months and he went back to the great worker he was before. If talking to him doesn't work, be fast to send him on his way. Your other employees will respect the way you handle it.

From contributor W:
Earlier problems equal at least a verbal warning and discussion. Leaving an hour early without notice equals verbal warning and discussion. On short notice, says he is leaving for family stuff, leaves early without punching out equals a reminder to punch out when he leaves and that you need more notice when taking time off. Monday no show/no call equals written warning and discussion. Tuesday time card and attitude equals "Jerry, you are about to lose your job. You know you are supposed to give us written notice when taking time off, not on your time card. Your attitude has been lousy this morning. You already have several verbal warnings and one written warning. What gives? If you don't want to work here, it is in both our best interests if you go ahead and quit. If you want to continue to work here, you will have to do a lot better than you have been doing."

If he is remorseful, admitting whatever is bothering him, sincere in keeping his job, he has one more chance, maybe two (one more written warning). If he goes a couple of months without messing up. If he has an attitude, fire him on the spot, telling him you have a business to run, get your stuff, that doesn't fly around here. Document! If you don't know how to do that, ask someone, get a form.

From contributor V:
It sounds to me like an employer problem. You need to treat your guys fairly, but from what you are describing, this guy is out of control. I had an employee like that, and I really needed him. I let him walk all over me. One day, I finally had enough and let him go. It was the best thing that I ever did. It was hard for about two months, but then I found a replacement and a much better employee. There is a replacement for everybody, even us the employers. You should not let an employee do as he/she wishes. I tell my workers that outside the shop there is a democracy called America. Inside the shop I am the boss. I make all final decisions, because at the end of the day, it's my money. Don't get me wrong - I am nice and treat my guys fairly, but up to a point. There is no employee that is worth getting migraines over everyday.

From contributor S:
There are times when people get tired of everyday life routines. Your employee just needs a little time to rethink. At last, it is your choice - dismiss him or give him another dollar.

From contributor J:
Employee is going about this all bassackwards. He's obviously become complacent and considers himself irreplaceable. Showing disrespect for one's boss, the work schedule, the delivery schedule (you know, the thing that generates money, which includes his check) and creating more pressure on the other employees to meet the delivery schedule, is not the path to a wage increase. Certainly not at my place. Sit down with him, clearly explain your rules and objectives and why you have them in place. If he's in agreement - let's get to work. If he gets an attitude - he's immediately fired and escorted off the premises. Don't even attempt to discuss his personal finances; you have no control of his spending habits. He's obviously making enough to take off a lot.

Maybe he should consider a budget. Most people's idea of a budget is "How much we got?" Do not make that your problem. Explain this is how much the job he's doing pays -after, of course, factoring in the absenteeism and bad attitude. If everyone gets cooperative, and they become less of a pain in my butt, it could possibly pay more. I'd rather have no employee than one I'm paying enough to take off without notice, or using my time to iron out his personal problems.

From contributor E:
I'd say your problem child is looking for a new job, judging by the time he has been taking off. If he does side jobs, maybe he thinks it's time for him to go into business for himself, and no longer needs the job. Any reconciliation you have with him maybe putting off the inevitable. In any case, start looking for a replacement, or promote from within.

From contributor N:
In Texas there is a policy that works like this... No Call, No Show, No Job.

When they don't call or show you are entitled to make the assumption that they quit. You run with that and you don't have to pay any unemployment either. Otherwise you write them up three times and hand them a pink slip and still no unemployment.

From contributor H:
I'll bet he has already quit, he just wanted his vacation pay first. If he hasn't quit, I would fire him for no show - no second chance.

From contributor I:

In a normal economy like you are in, I would get rid of him. People don't change. The problem will not go away. That said, I really envy you guys. I am in an overheated economy. My shop is full of people like this because they are the only people available. I am offering my employees an extra 2.00 per hour bonus for anyone who shows up a minimum of 35 hours a week. Out of 9 employees, only one gets the bonus. The last qualified resume I received was two months ago. I called immediately after receiving the fax, but by the time I called, she was already offered a dozen other jobs. The last few people I hired never showed up the first day. In my situation the only recourse for bad behavior is to sit the employee down and beg, offer rewards, anything, to try to get them to change. Businesses here are going bankrupt daily because of lack of employees. It sucks.

From contributor R:
It is a part of the job that most business owners don't like to have to deal with. Confrontation with a customer or an employee is not something you like to face. Often the thoughts that go through your mind are much worse than the actual problem itself. A lot of people here have said that getting rid of the problem or at least talking it out made them feel much better. If the employee is just going through a rough patch, and just needs to talk or a little guidance, the sooner, the better. It is possible that it is just time for that person to leave, in which case, again, the sooner, the better. I am in the same market as contributor W, where there is just no one to hire. I still would get rid of an employee who is treating the job as if it were an option. If you take on a job, do the job right or move on.

From contributor Q:
I have had a similar problem. We only had three in the shop and he was the senior man. I put a lot of faith and trust in him. He had a key to the shop, no time clock, and we paid him higher than our competitors.

One day he shows up and demands a $3/hour pay raise. He explained that his family needed more money. I mentioned that his scale was already high for the area and at our current level of sales, we couldn't do it. Plus, his bi-annual review wasn't up yet.

Then the attitude started. Materials started disappearing. Rework increased 100%. Jobs that used to take 40 hours were taking 50-55.

I asked my office manager to scrutinize the data. Try to find out what was happening. I couldn't believe that this person was really doing this. After about three weeks, I confronted him over the data. He became very defensive. He let me know that we would go bankrupt in six months without him. I told him to think about his position and we'd talk when I came back from the jobsite.

My office manager came in and he jumped her. Very angry and verbally abusive. She did what I should have done. She asked for the key and told him to leave immediately. In retrospect, I made some serious mistakes. I gave him too much freedom. I knew he was an asset and that it would be difficult without him. (Our hiring pool is dismal at best within this region.) So, I tried to overlook the bad behavior and looked at him as a friend instead of an employee.

His attitude had negatively affected the other two guys too. I showed weakness and they smelled blood. We ended up letting them go too. In a way, he was right about going bankrupt in six months. It took almost that long to fix all the problems in the field where they had deliberately screwed things up. That very nearly drove us under. If I see even the first little signs of this behavior again, I'll confront them immediately. Their attitude and my gut will determine if I keep them.

In the past, I've always gone the extra mile for the employers that showed some compassion for me. I worked late, weekends, whatever it took to get the job done. As long as they didn't ask me to compromise my integrity, I was there for them. I knew that if they were profitable, I would be too. I always busted my ass for them. But you can't help some people. You can't be their friend, you can't be their marriage counselor and you can't jeopardize your livelihood and your other employees' livelihood for them.

From the original questioner:
Just an update: I am going to sit this guy down after break today and talk to him. He is a hard worker, but like you all are saying, I can't let him walk all over me anymore. We have a shop with eight other people, and he has been complaining to all of them about his problem as well. I can tell the other guys are trying to avoid him. I have a sheet that lists all of the late shows and no shows he has had, so I'll let that do the talking. Thank you for all the help. I'll let you know what he decides.

From contributor I:
Good to see you are still adding to the ole sawdust pile. Our employee situation is certainly unique. I have made it clear to our employees that the ones that show up on time will be getting raises and training, and the ones that don't will eventually be replaced when and if I find someone to replace them. I have no choice but to tolerate their behavior. If I were to fire them, I would have to shut down. I've done that before and it almost cost me the business. I don't have any malicious employees, just ones that come in late, or not at all. I guess they make too much and don't need a full paycheck. I may be wrong, but the way I look at it is that out of a crew of 9, I actually only have 7, because of the lates and no-shows. It's not ideal, but at least I have some warm bodies in the shop.

From contributor W:
We have about 10% out each day for either their error or PTO. It may have gotten better lately since we told them they don't get their production bonus if they get more than 3 tardies or 1 unexcused absence in a month. That is still in a trial stage.

From the original questioner:
Another update. Showed up late today. We didn't pay him for the vacation day last Monday. He came storming into my office wondering why! I explained to him why we weren't paying for a day of vacation when he didn't call in at all. He said he didn't have access to a telephone. His son used up the battery on the cell and didn't charge it. I asked him if that was the only phone to be found and why he didn't call on Sat or Sun. He did not want to have a reasonable conversation. Said he works harder than all the other guys in the shop. He said he should get a raise. I said he was already making top wage for the shop. He called me a liar and said he would be looking for a different job. I said that would be fine. I don't want to fire him on the spot, for unemployment reasons. I believe that we would be liable, wouldn't we? Thank you all for your help.

From contributor N:
It's different in different states. Here in Texas insubordination is grounds for immediate termination without paying unemployment. Also in this state, no call, no show, no job. You make the assumption he quit. Otherwise you write him up three times and then terminate, still no unemployment.

From contributor B:
I definitely would write all this up in chronological form and have it as proof for what he's pulling to labor board if that comes about.

From contributor J:
This guy is slapping you around, just begging you to fire him. You cannot allow a challenge to your authority to go unanswered. The absolute worst thing you can do is allow this abrasive, disgruntled loudmouth to be in your shop and running his yap with the other employees. Running you and the company down and stirring them up about their wages, workload, etc.

If he can get a better deal going, why is he wasting his time at your place? At the end of the day, he's leaving anyway, so you might as well help the process along - give him a head start on that job search, and minimize the discord that his presence in the shop will surely create. After all the other flap you've caught off this boat anchor in the last week, the very last thing he should want to do is come in late. When he twisted off about the last second vacation pay - to flush out his week, I'd have given him whatever he had coming - the full amount of any remaining vacation pay, any unpaid salary, and kick his butt to the curb.

Your employees look to you to be the boss, and their leader - right, wrong, or indifferent. Call it, then live with it. Admittedly, I'm sometimes a prick at my place, but my guys would follow me anywhere, because I'm always fair, and they know I'll come through for them.

From contributor B:
Forget about having to pay unemployment... you're paying it now anyway. If that is what you were worried about, let him go.

From contributor G:
"He called me a liar and said he would be looking for a different job."
On what planet is this not tantamount to quitting?

From contributor Z:
We had a fellow work for us about six years ago that was not a good fit for our shop. We knew it and he knew it. He came into the office to announce that it just wasn't working out and said that he would stay until the end of September but that he was looking for other work. I agreed with him that this would be best. After about a week he became so unpleasant that the crew urged me to urge him along, which I did. He went down to the unemployment office where it was concluded that I violated our employment agreement. He became eligible to draw 54 weeks of unemployment compensation and the rates I paid for the rest of my crew increased as a result.

From contributor T:
If you must weigh in the cost of unemployment insurance, I would suggest that you also consider the cost of having a bad apple spoil the whole bunch. It's definitely time to move on.

From contributor W:
Why would you not call the local employment office and say, "He quit with notice. If I release him early, will I be liable?" If yes, then write him up for attitude. If he did not correct it immediately, document and fire him. No more liability. I am not clear as to why so many of us don't get answers before we act. Does your local employment office not discuss their rules? Is there no guide book published?

From contributor P:
Have you ever tried to get consistent answers out of a government agency? My experience has been that belligerence means no unemployment. Write it all down with a timeline.

From contributor D:
He has given you more than enough reason to fire him! He is costing you money and productivity (more money) with the affect his attitude is having on your other employees. By keeping him you are sending a signal to other employees that they to can get away with that kind of activity also. Yes, it is hard to find good help, but that is no reason to keep bad help.

A real good book that talks about all kinds of employee issues is "the street smart entrepreneur" by Jay Goldtz.

As far as the unemployment costs, one way to limit your liability on this is to lease your employees. This is different than a temp or payroll service. I hire and fire, they take care of everything else including the tax liability, unemployment, etc. My savings on workers comp alone pays for the small fee they charge to process and it reduces the amount of hours that we spend on payroll.