Dealing with Difficult Employees in the Technical Communication Workplace

Some of the more intractable problems we face on the job are the human ones. But cranky though Microsoft Word often seems, most of its blowups are at least predictable; humans are anything but. The worst problems can arise when you find yourself in a situation where power relationships come into play, which is often the case when you’re managing another employee and responsible for their work and their on-the-job behavior.

For a variety of reasons, technical communicators are often seen as “difficult” or “problem” employees–this means that co-workers tend to complain about us and insist that our managers correct our behavior. Unfortunately, we often work in high-stress environments that make it difficult for us to work calmly and difficult for colleagues to work with us peacefully. Many communicators complain that developers and other subject matter experts (SMEs) don’t bother to understand what we do and thus, don’t respect our work. As a result, they often consider meeting their own deadlines far more important than helping us do our work, and when we must ask them to provide the information we need to complete our documentation or to review draft documents, we don’t get what we need.

The result? We’re forced to nag, and that can get us labeled as problems, not colleagues. When, as is often the case, the documentation phase comes late in an increasingly rushed development schedule, and when deadlines begin tightening like a noose, everyone grows impatient and frustrated. Even when these stresses are largely absent, some employees won’t be able to live up to the standards you set, or need reminders that SMEs have their own problems and that tact and patience are important tools in working with them. The situation becomes particularly tricky when another manager has tolerated poor work or unacceptable behavior for long enough that it’s become a habit–and the situation can become nightmarish if they’ve tried unsuccessfully to correct the problem and despairingly passed the problem and a scared or angry employee on to you.

What can you do in this situation? Start by recognizing that you have ethical and legal responsibilities, both to the employee and to your mutual employer. You owe the employee a chance to explain themselves and prove that they can solve the problem and continue working, yet you can’t afford to let someone completely unsuited for the job continue working for your employer in that role. These responsibilities may conflict dramatically, and reconciling them may not always be possible. But even when you find yourself in a no-win situation, you can at least try to be fair to everyone concerned, including yourself. The process is simple to describe:

Sit down with the employee and explain the problem.
Work with the employee to correct the problem.
Document everything you do.
Resolve the problem–one way or another.
Unfortunately, the devil’s hiding in the details.

Before You Begin

As simple as this approach seems, it’s rarely this simple in practice. Solving the problem may be a long and painful process even in a good situation. I’ve written the remainder of this article on the assumption that you’ve been handed a problem created by someone else, but the same advice applies equally well if the problem arises on your watch and you detect it in time to try to solve it.

Please note: Each jurisdiction has different regulations that define the various legalities of dealing with unacceptable employee behavior. If the situation appears to be difficult to resolve amicably, make sure you obtain good legal advice from a lawyer with expertise in employment law so that you can protect yourself and your employer. Your Personnel or Human Resources (HR) department can often fill this role, but don’t assume this is the case.

You should keep a few general principles in mind as you work through the procedure I’ve outlined:

Recognize that you can’t succeed if you don’t develop a trusting relationship with the employee.
Recognize that your own emotions will interfere with your judgment, and that you’ll occasionally have to work to remain calm and objective. Moreover, by focusing narrowly on a problem, it’s easy to see only the negative and fail to observe the good things the employee is doing.
Devote your greatest efforts to the big problems, since solving them produces the biggest payback; once they’re out of the way, the little problems often become much less noticeable. However, starting with one or two easy problems can let you establish credibility, and successes can help motivate the employee to tackle more complex problems.
Recognize that every problem has two sides, and even where the employee is mostly the one at fault, other employees may be contributing to or exacerbating the problem. Expect to work with more than the problem employee to solve problems.
Work with the employee to develop a plan for how to solve the problem and how to monitor the employee’s progress; try to avoid imposing a plan or a solution.
Actively collect feedback rather than waiting passively for information to filter back to you.
Don’t expect changes to happen overnight.
Sit Down and Explain the Problem

As you begin, realize that by the time the problem arrives on your desk, it’s probably existed for a considerable time, and everyone involved is going to be stressed out and working with a short temper: Approach them the wrong way and they may explode, making it very difficult to put things back together afterwards.

To defuse this particular bomb, you need to be seen as a credible ally for the employee, and you can start obtaining this credibility by taking the employee aside and explaining the problem. If you’re not the one who raised the supposed problem, make it clear that you’re going to form your own judgment (“starting today, as if the employee had no history with the company”) and that you’re going to work with the employee to ensure the problem is either disproved (if it’s not a real problem) or that it goes away.

Adopt this approach only if you’re sincere about your efforts to help; insincerity is easy to detect, and a bad first impression may be impossible to correct once it’s been created. Explain the problem as you see it, and try to convince the employee that it’s a real problem. Give them a chance to justify their behavior, and try to set aside your own annoyance long enough to judge their response fairly. Sometimes they will have good reasons for what they’re doing, and you might be perceiving a problem where none exists or blaming an employee for something that’s simply not their fault. But no matter how reasonable the employee’s justification, it’s still your responsibility to decide how to handle the problem.

This initial conversation serves a crucial purpose: It establishes a collaborative relationship of the form “I’m going to do my best to help you solve this problem,” rather than an antagonistic relationship that could be parodied as “you’re a bad, immature person and I’m going to do my superior, more mature best to get you fired.” If the person is trainable, wants to improve, and is worth keeping on, you can often work with them to solve the problem–maybe not quickly, but eventually.

Work to Correct the Problem

Once you’ve agreed that you’re going to work together, you must jointly establish two things: An objective and measurable way of identifying whether there is a problem, and an objective plan with measurable outcomes for correcting the problem. Unfortunately, as is the case for most of the work we do, it can be very difficult to establish criteria that aren’t subjective. But if you and the employee can reach a consensus on the perceived problem and how to measure the results of the steps you take to address the problem, then you have a sound basis for proceeding. That basis must give rise to a plan that includes regular communication, actively obtaining feedback, and carefully monitoring the results.

If the problem is relatively simple, such as an inability to write as well as the job requires, you can identify the most important areas of improvement and spend some time teaching a better approach to the employee or directing them to other training resources. Don’t necessarily worry about small things at this point; you need to fix the most serious writing problems first, and you can’t expect to solve all the problems at once. Choose problems that offer the greatest payback, both for the employer and the employee, since helping the employee to succeed greatly increases the chances that they’ll continue working with you rather than giving up in despair.

If the problem is more complex, as is often the case for interpersonal relationships and inappropriate on-the-job behavior, quantifying things becomes much more difficult. Every problem has two sides, and even a truly problematic employee may be innocent in some situations; even when they’re not, another person may be contributing to or exacerbating the problem, and the problem may be insoluble without their cooperation. In such cases, you may need to work with the other employee as well to define the problem, get both people working together, specify steps both should take to resolve any problems, and specify when they should come to you. Sometimes, arranging a meeting between the employee and the person who considers them a problem can work wonders, particularly if you act as an arbitrator to ensure that both have a chance to explain their side of the problem and listen to the other person. Work through these disagreements and aim for consensus, but when you can’t achieve consensus, remember that you’re the manager and that if you’ve been diligent in assessing and understanding the situation, your opinion is the one that must prevail in the end.

Finally, especially for difficult or complex problems, involve the company’s HR department. Although we wage slaves love to complain about the HR department, these people can be your strongest allies in solving workplace problems. Their staff have often received specialized training in these matters and may have expertise you can bring to bear on the problem. Even when that’s not the case, they can still serve as an impartial third party to help you arbitrate any disputes that arise. If nothing else, they can provide an additional opinion that confirms for the employee–and for you–that the problem isn’t just your subjective opinion.

Document Everything

Every decision you make and every statistic you collect must be carefully documented and must be known to the employee. If you’ve developed a firm plan on how to proceed (as I suggested in the previous section), this plan should also specify what kinds of documentation you’ll

collect and how you’ll collect it.

Good documentation should be objective to the greatest extent possible, and should be something that can be independently confirmed. If you can document the problem, with confirmation from others, you’re on reasonably secure ground. The HR department is a great source for this confirmation, since they can again serve the role of an objective outsider and can witness the fact that you’ve met with the employee, discussed the problem fairly and openly, and exercised due diligence in trying to correct the problem. They can also provide specific advice on the legal requirements for what you’re doing; I can’t do that because I’m not a lawyer, and more importantly, the requirements vary between jurisdictions.

Good documentation should include a clear statement of the problem and solution. Again, the problem should be clearly defined and supported. Objectives should be measurable, and the plan should be a contract of sorts between you and the employee (and others, as necessary), with details of what each person is expected to do in working together to solve the problem.

Good documentation should document your conversations. Make notes before scheduled conversations about what you plan to talk about, and make notes throughout the conversation, as needed. Then, immediately after the meeting, summarize your notes into a “minutes of the meeting” document, and distribute copies to everyone involved in solving the problem.

Good documentation should include regular progress reports on each objective, supported by data from other people. Supporting information could take the form of “before and after” copies of projects, with these copies including the dates, your comments, and the employee’s response to proposed changes. Supporting information could also include letters from those affected by the person’s behavior–reporting progress, continued problems, or even compliments. Documenting both the negative and the positive provides a more balanced assessment of the situation, and will help you overcome the natural negative bias you’ll develop by focusing on the negative aspects of the situation while working through a problem.

Worth noting is that you should plan to actively collect information on the employee’s progress rather than simply waiting passively for the information to come to you. For example, set up a time to regularly meet with the employee, and then keep those appointments! As needed, actively work with others who are affected by the employee’s behavior to obtain the supporting information you need.

Good documentation should include signatures–yours, the employee’s, and any other participating or witnessing parties’–and dates, at every step of the process. Where obtaining a signature would be too confrontational or where the employee refuses to sign, make sure you have a witness from HR to confirm the objectives, the plan, the progress reports, and any supporting information you’ve provided.

Gathering such documentation will gradually produce a clear record of improvement–or of failure to improve. Unfortunately, some employees can’t be “saved” through such a process because they simply can’t do the job or aren’t willing to work to save themselves. In that case, you may eventually have to resort to firing the person outright or recommending a transfer to another job that they are more capable of doing. In this situation, the documentation that you’ve gathered provides justification for your decision and protects you to a considerable extent from legal action initiated by a disgruntled employee.

If you’re worried about unethical behavior on the part of the employee–justifiably or otherwise–store copies of the documentation with the HR department or at home so the employee can’t break into your file cabinet and dispose of the evidence if it becomes obvious that you’re going to have to fire them. Of course, if things work out well and you succeed in saving the situation, you can ceremonially burn the evidence together–kind of like burning your mortgage document once the house is paid off. If you do that, be sure to create a summary document for the employee’s permanent personnel file that describes the problem and states that it was resolved satisfactorily. Give a copy to the employee too.

Resolve the Problem

Thus far, you’ve established your objectives, demonstrated what things are unacceptable and why, and given the person a chance to correct the situation. Now it’s time to judge the results and take action. The rule “three strikes and you’re out” is often cited, but this rule comes from baseball and has no objective basis in human psychology–and thus has no place in the process of correcting a problem. Sometimes it’s going to take a lot more than three strikes before a person corrects a problem, even if they’re a willing and active participant. This is less true with things like writing skills, which are easier to master if you’re a good teacher and have a willing, trainable student. Interpersonal problems may require considerably more time and effort, up to and including professional psychological counseling (often paid for by the employer’s health plan). If that’s the case, you’ll have to bring the counselor into the team devoted to fixing the problem, and you’ll have to be even more patient than you’d be with purely technical problems.

As you’re working to resolve the problem, don’t “spank” the person when they’ve failed; explain the problem patiently and calmly, without attacking the person and in a manner that suggests you’re still willing to work with them. Clearly communicate what you expect them to do about the problem in moving forward, and as described in the previous section, put your instructions in writing so they can’t claim they didn’t see them. I’ve already mentioned that it may take a long time to fix the situation, but that message bears repeating; writing and other habits, which have often been acquired over the course of decades, won’t change overnight.

How much time and effort should you put into trying to solve the problem? That’s a judgment call, and only you can answer the question based on a level-headed assessment of your own workload, the employee’s potential for improvement, and your manager’s guidance. At some point, you’ll have enough evidence to tell you whether the situation will continue to improve at an acceptable rate–or whether it won’t ever improve, and the only solution will be to fire the employee or move them elsewhere.

The Bottom Line

As the manager of a problem employee, it’s always best to start with a clean slate. You owe that person at least a fighting chance to clean up their act, and you shouldn’t be unduly prejudiced by what’s gone before; many problems result from simple or serious interpersonal incompatibilities rather than the employee’s incompetence or intentional malice, and other problems stem from simple misunderstandings that have never been identified and corrected. For example, a former manager who gave up on the employee, never tried to explain and correct the problem, and never indicated a willingness to force them to work on solving the problem undoubtedly provided no incentive to improve.

On a human scale, saving someone else’s job and giving them the tools they need to succeed in the workplace is an immensely satisfying accomplishment. But thinking selfishly for a moment, turning an unproductive problem into a productive worker also represents a large feather in your cap when it comes time for your own performance evaluation. If you fail–and success is by no means guaranteed–at least you can console yourself with the knowledge that you tried to make things better for someone, and can sleep easier knowing that you’ve exercised due diligence and protected yourself from a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

Is all this just theory and sentiment? Some of it. But I can also tell you that I’ve participated in exactly this approach to help a problem colleague on several occasions, and the approach has worked wonders. In each case, the problems weren’t all solved, but we at least lowered the tension level enough to have good prospects for continuing to improve the situation. It takes patience and persistence, but what could be more important than making that effort on behalf of another person?

Acknowledgment

Thanks to Doug Isenberg, publisher of GigaLaw.com, for providing a quick reality check on the contents of this article.

Geoff Hart

During a sometimes checkered career, Geoff has worked for IBM, the Canadian Forest Service, and the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada. In 2004, he threw away all that job security stuff for the carefree—not!—life of the freelancer. Geoff works primarily as a scientific editor, but also does technical writing and French translation, and occasionally falls into the trap of leading or managing groups.

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