Managing Your Crazy Employees

If you’ve been a manager for any length of time, you probably have your share of crazy employee stories– the employees you probably inherited and didn’t hire yourself, although I’ve been fooled a few times and created my own nightmare! Several faces and experiences come to mind, raising my heart rate just to think about them! Crazy may not be a politically correct term, but there’s really no better way to describe that employee that’s like the static-charged shrink wrap that you can’t get off your hand.

I’ve classified crazy employees into four categories:

  • The Manipulator
  • The Clueless
  • The Paranoid
  • The Drama Queen/King

Maybe you can come up with some additional categories based on your experience! Does the uber-creative type, the outstandingly nerdy, or the socially awkward employees require their own classification? What about the ones who are a combination of several categories? You can draw your own conclusions, but here’s a look at the four I identify:

The Manipulator is smart. He knows what he’s doing and approaches every interaction as a game of cat and mouse. Some manipulators have no ill motives, they just enjoy seeing what they can get away with and how far they can push you until you snap. They play everyone and are hard to catch because they’ve spun a web that is hard to untangle. ‘Terry’ was an expert storyteller and could weasel his way out of any situation. But when I tried to verify his story it quickly unraveled.

Solution: Resist making on-the-spot decisions or judgments. Check the facts, get different perspectives. Most importantly, make sure the Manipulator understands the expectations and consequences. Avoid getting into emotional arguments, which is the genius with manipulators. If possible, pair them up with someone you trust and who is manipulation-resistant. Stick to your guns and repeat your expectations in a matter-of-fact manner. Put the burden on them – often they want to make you the ‘bad guy’- involve them in solving their own problem and the issue may quickly disappear. 

The Clueless employee is simple. She’s the one you wonder about how she got hired in the first place, and even how she gets from her house to the office every day. You pull out all of your tricks to explain things in a way she can understand, but still there are mistakes in the books, or miscommunications to customers. It’s hard not to be sympathetic, but it’s exasperating to put so much effort into someone who clearly is out of their element. ‘Shirley’ had a great heart, really wanted to succeed, and made me want to help her with her sincerity, but the business was suffering because of her inability to perform at the lowest requirements of her job.

Solution: Spend some time trying to figure them out. If it’s a matter of learning style, then be creative. Ask them how they like to learn things. Ask them what their perspective is to see if they ‘get’ that they have a problem in learning & retaining knowledge/directions. For some it may be a simple solution, like allowing them to make step-by-step drawings of the process they’re supposed to follow. If all of your creative solutions don’t work and you don’t have another position to move them to for which they might be better suited, you may have to let them go. Always document the steps you’ve taken!

The Paranoid staff member thinks everyone is out to get them. He is the conspiracy theorist that sees hidden motives behind every action and looks for trouble under every rock. You spend a lot of time trying to convince him that the new computer software is not a means to get rid of him. You can almost bet that any announcement of a change in policy or procedure will result in a visit to your office by the paranoid employee. ‘Daniel’ was a trainer that would share his paranoid thoughts with new hire trainees about how he was sure we were trying to fire him. Well…he may have been right!

Solution: First, you need to determine if the paranoid behavior is getting in the way of their performance, or negatively impacting their coworkers. If it is, then you have to clearly communicate your expectations. Do what you can to assure them that you’re not out to get them and ask them what would help them feel more secure. They have to understand that you will hold them accountable, but that it isn’t personal and you don’t expect perfection. Consider a simple ‘contract’ to spell out what can be expected on both sides – just make sure there is no language that sounds like you’re guaranteeing them a job. This is a ‘rules of engagement’ document, not a job contract.

The Drama Queen/King seems to have crisis follow them day in and day out. Whether it’s a personal crisis (boyfriend/girlfriend troubles, financial setbacks, and transportation breakdowns are the top three), or work related challenges, this type of crazy employee can wear out a manager between tear-filled counseling sessions, documenting performance and attendance problems, and trying to find someone to cover their shift at the last minute. ‘Debbie’ had an eventful life, and sometimes the drama wasn’t created by her so it was hard to administer discipline without seeming heartless.

Solution: Separate work issues from personal issues. Offer sympathy and general advice, but don’t get roped into solving all of their problems for them. Do what makes sense for the business without enabling them to rely on you every time they get into a bind. Address the work issues and show them the impact to the business when they are absent, late, or disengaged because of outside drama. If they’re making drama in the workplace amongst co-worker or customers, clearly communicate your expectations and spell out the consequences if they can’t keep things under control. Let them know of benefits or resources that may help (employee assistance program, leave of absence, etc.).

You may have picked up on the common thread in the solutions for each type:

  • Clearly communicated expectations
  • Reasonable solutions, empathy & concern for the individual
  • Accountability, with burden on the employee
  • Documentation of what you’ve done and the results
  • Ultimately do what’s right for your business AND the employee

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