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​​​​​​​​​Arthur P. Meister

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There is no ironclad definition of a problem employee.  Problems can be different things to different people.  They can run a gamut from marginal performance to acts of crime.  The “real” problem employee will usually fall somewhere in the upper half of this continuum.  I believe the difference between a “real” problem and a marginal or unsatisfactory one lies mainly in the reasoning behind their efforts as opposed to the quantity of their output.  The need to address the quality of performance behind the numbers is very important.   With this in mind, I believe there are discernible differences between what one would consider marginal versus problematic. 

Marginal Performers

They’re employees who basically conform to standards, but only with minimum or sub standard effort.  I believe they possess a basic desire to conform, but lack the will or ability to perform at a higher level.  (While they may lack motivation, self confidence, common sense, courage, or whatever, they basically do what is required without much ill intent).  Many factors may contribute to this dilemma.  They may stem from inadequate selection and training, improper supervision, personal problems at home, etc., but usually there’s a spark or ember somewhere that can be fanned into a flame with properly directed efforts.  In other words most marginal employees are probably “improvable.” 

However, a management truism to keep in mind prophesizes the longer an employee is allowed to remain marginal or unsatisfactory, the less likely they can be turned around or restored to acceptable levels of performance.

Public sector “marginals” are too often tolerated as an acceptable nuisance.  While managers are expected to address marginal performance as part of their role, it’s easier said than done.  As anyone with a great deal of responsibility and large numbers of employees or projects can attest, sometimes marginal performance is tolerated - even sanctioned - by relegating the underachiever to lesser tasks and responsibilities (rationalizing they lighten the load of more productive employees). 

The “Challenging” Problem Employee

This kind of performer is another matter altogether.  There’s no relegating these employees – they have to be addressed – now!  That’s because it has a lot to do with their personal orientation (predisposition) that drives their actions.  While the marginal employees usually possesses something resembling a legitimate desire (will) to conform, the “real” problem employee very often has a hidden, inauspicious agenda - even a malicious bent to their actions.  Any attempt at “re-orientation” is going to be a “real” challenge.

I’m not referring to the one caught committing a crime.  They’re easy to deal with.  No, the real problem employee is usually more subtle and clever.  They disrupt the workplace with actions that are often difficult to articulate and usually fall just short of any kind of supportable disciplinary action.  

I’ve found real problem employees to be self centered, ego-driven “divas” who feel entitled to whatever personal benefit they can extract from their employment - who feel the job is there for them.  Their mission statement is too often, Me, Myself, and I.  They hold job requirements in contempt.  Cynicism and negativity seem to dominate their persona.  They’re usually unhappy, disgruntled - never satisfied - and intent on spreading their affliction around to others.   They often view themselves as victims, constantly deflecting responsibility by blaming management for their inadequacies.  Their sensitivity and defensiveness makes them difficult to critique, even with the best of intention. 

It’s more than a negative attitude; every agency has their grumblers and complainers.  It’s when subtle griping becomes a willful pattern of defiance, indifference to, or disregard of established policies, procedures, and expected protocol, that he or she can adversely impact morale and group equilibrium, and even put the agency at risk.  Inciting discourse through rumor mongering, antagonizing others through bigotry, bias, and bullying, and encouraging confrontation (Instigating others, “Don’t let management get away with that…”.) are all part of the subtleties that dwell in the hidden agenda of a real problem employee.  

Let’s not forget the anger issue, too.  (I’ve witnessed employees with explosive tempers whom managers ignore or avoid engaging for fear of the probable uncomfortable reaction that would result.  They are employees everyone tip toes around for the sake of continued short term quietude).   They were promising prospects when hired, but have become the time consuming problem you’ve got to handle now. 

(Another truism has some agencies hiring people already knowing or suspecting a degree of deficiency, and yet carry them through probation into the more protected realm of tenure.  There are many reasons for this, chief among them being a practical need for certain qualities or expertise.  Also the cost of recruitment, training, and equipping often compels a bit more tolerance in judging newly discovered inadequacies, and supervisors or assessors failing to address the issue at the proper time).  

In any event, they are the “head aches, bad attitudes and pains in the neck” and other generalizations so often used by managers to describe their pressing problem employee dilemma. 

An interesting aspect of the “Challenging” problem employee is that it can entail features that reflect just the opposite of the marginal – great numbers.  They can be enthusiastic, aggressive, and numerically productive employees.  What makes them a problem is they are producing great numbers “their” way, and not the way they should be, (lacking discretion, unsavory if not illegal tactics, or short cuts that ignore proper protocol or procedure, i.e, closing cases with pending leads, citing violators under questionable circumstances, etc). 

Whatever the issue, their actions continuously undermine a supervisor’s authority and ability to lead.  Remember, others are watching how you respond to and handle this kind of challenge.  They have to be addressed with timely intervention – before they become a hazard, loss, or crime - regardless of the amount of responsibility or demand facing the supervisor.   


The onus for employee performance is being increasingly shared by management in the eyes of labor regulators and adjudicators.  You can’t hide problems behind the front desk or back room anymore, or relegate the real problem to lesser responsibility.  Civil service regulations and union contracts afford them too much protection to address strictly from a performance position. 

Problems must now be addressed from a more pro-active, “strategically” crafted perspective, i.e., an action plan designed to be more helpful than punitive.  In other words, how can I help this employee become less problematic, or – as a last resort –  possibly “help” him or her into another field of endeavor.