CEO Training: 7 Keys to Deal With Problem Employees

By Laura Sabo

There are few situations in life that can be as challenging for managers or small business leaders to tackle as addressing challenging employees. There is a fine line between sparking positive change and fueling a whirlwind of negative energy and ineffectiveness in your office.. Below are a few keys to remember if you ever find yourself in a situation where one of your team members is causing problems and you are the one tasked with addressing the issue head on.

Key #1 – Don’t Trash Talk Anyone

It’s so easy to bad-mouth members of your team who are not pulling their weight or are otherwise just not meeting your standards. From a productivity standpoint, trash-talking anyone in your office is usually not a good idea because it doesn’t normally cause positive change, it just fuels a fire of negativity in your office. With regard to solid communication strategy, it’s usually best to speak directly with the person who is at the heart of the issue, especially if you are their superior. Out of respect for the person at fault, your fellow coworkers, and the success of your business, speaking directly to a person rather than behind their back will almost always be the best course of action.

Key #2 – Clearly Communicate

We are all human and we all have emotions. Don’t let your emotions guide the way you communicate with problem employees. Instead, rely on your documented company standards or best practices to help you walk your employees through the reasons why their performance is not what is expected of them. Use challenging circumstances as opportunities to educate and inspire, rather than beat down or discourage your employees. When an employee acts out or slacks off in some way, it’s likely because they have lost their drive to perform well. Sometimes work will be tough or boring and you can’t fix that, but come alongside your problem employee and treat communication with them as a two-way street, not a dictation of offenses. Listen to them and try to figure out the heart behind what’s gotten them to this point. After you’ve diagnosed the root behind their poor performance, create a plan on paper that you and your problem employee both agree upon. Listen, diagnose, plan, and achieve.

Key #3 – Great Business Leaders Believe in Their Employees

business frustrationsDon’t give up hope. When one of your employees’ performance is waning, don’t be so quick to punish them. The only way that you’ll be able to help your employees succeed is if you truly believe that they can, no matter how far off course they may be. Give your all as a manager by becoming an advocate for your team even when they are at a low point. Dramatic changes in employee behavior can be sparked by servant-minded leaders who can lend a listening ear and offer gentle guidance.

Key #4 – Document

It’s not easy to justify firing someone if you don’t have clearly documented notes to rely on. Begin documenting the key points in your problem employee’s behavior or other issues. Take note of times and outcomes of interactions between you and the employee. If the problems don’t go away and the employee’s performance doesn’t improve, good documentation will give you peace of mind in doing what is right for your company and for everyone involved if you must fire an employee.

Key #5 – Do What You Say

You cannot tell any of your employees, especially the ones causing issues, that it’s okay to do something one day and then tell them it’s not okay the next day. Consistency in your leadership and communication will set the standards that create a well-oiled machine in your work environment.

Key #6 – Don’t Beat Yourself Up

As a manager or business leader, you have to make difficult decisions. It’s easy to second-guess yourself and wonder if perhaps you were to harsh in bringing up an issue with an employee. It is your responsibility to do what is in the best interest of your company and your employees. Keep your company’s goals in front of you and pursue them wholeheartedly. In doing this, you’ll have more peace of mind about making tough calls with employees when their behavior or performance does not align with company standards.

Key #7 – Do What You Know Is Right

You are in a position of leadership. Sometimes, leading means coming alongside your employees to guide them through the cause of their change in behavior or work. Sometimes, leading means making difficult decisions, such as firing someone. Trust your gut and maintain a positive outlook in every situation.

There are rarely perfect solutions when it comes to dealing with problem employees, but by following the steps above, you’ll be able to navigate challenging situations with greater ease. Successful business leaders surround themselves with advisors and trusted peers who can help them validate decisions, giving them confidence that they are doing the right thing. Consider joining a peer group in your city to help you navigate the best course of action to deal with your problem employees.

laura sabo headshotTo learn more about joining a peer group, send an email to or visit

Laura Sabo is a professional facilitator with Renaissance Executive Forums. She brings together Business Owners, Presidents and CEOs from non-competing companies into an advisory board process through which thousands of leaders gain fresh ideas and new insights. 

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