I think we have all had unpleasant experiences with difficult, problematic employees, or as we’ll refer to them in this blog, DPEs. They come in all different sizes, shapes, backgrounds, levels in the organization and education realities. The only consistent characteristic seems to be their attitude, which causes you and others ongoing trouble. My first experience with a DPE came right out of college when I was responsible for a toxic pesticide manufacturing operation. I followed the union contract rules and continued to council and escalate appropriately until my DPE was one step away from discharge. After normal work hours one day, while I was still in the office, there was a knock on my window. The DPE’s wife asked permission to speak with me and out came a story of how their family really needed him to stay employed. We had a heart to heart discussion as to what the problems were and how we were both boxed into a corner unless she could influence him to improve what was causing the three of us real troubles. The next day he came into the office and laid out what he would do to change his behavior.
I wish all DPE cases were that simple. My next experience was in an integrated metal manufacturing facility where front line supervision had responsibility for several difficult employees. The supervisors followed the contract’s progressive discipline for their DPEs’ poor behaviors. However, at this point, upper management intervened and would not allow implementation of the discipline. From that point on, the whole mill culture changed for the worse and the supervision that stayed had to live with a cancerous culture of uncaring poor performance.
More jobs, more industries and more experience have taught me that:
· I must have upper management on board with what to do with the DPEs, how to manage them, how to correct them and how to discipline them if they do not turn around.
· If I can deliver corrective actions I must then deal face-to-face with the employee and must do this in the presence of union/labor and human resources leadership. The discussion must be factual, must have employee corrective actions and must have management and supervision accountabilities to track the employee executing their own personal DPE correction plan.
With these ideas in place, I have found about a 20% success rate with the DPEs permanently improving their own issues. The other 80%, hourly or salaried, seem to have developed a lifestyle/attitude that they slip back into after about three months of good behavior. Once they do their performance, cancer returns and you must deal with it if your organization is to move forward. This is not an enjoyable aspect of leadership. However, for less than 5% of the workforce it is a necessity. And one way or another when the change occurs a number of your frontline workforce, hourly and salaried, will thank you for being firm, fair and sticking it out with the DPE who was causing them trouble as well.