10 step process for dealing with problematic employees – from warning to firing

Krista Krumina 2.08.2017
How to fire a problematic employee

Let’s say your business is doing well. You are constantly growing, increasing revenue. You have the best people on the team, dedicated to the same goals and vision as you are.

Sounds perfect, huh?

But then…

It comes to your attention that some of your employees are chitchatting behind people’s backs, and some seem a little resentful.

You notice that some of your workers are taking advantage of your good heart and are deliberately being difficult:

Some may not be as punctual as you’d want them to be. Some are cheating your time clocking system. And you may think it’s something offensive only to you, but consider your other honest and hardworking team members. Is this fair to them?

As a manager, it’s your job to take notice. Because good office environment has a huge effect on your employees’ work capabilities. Unfortunately, so does a bad one.

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We already wrote about the most common problematic employee situations. Now, in this post, we’ll look at the step by step actions you must take when dealing with your problematic team members – from finding out why they’re being difficult to finally letting them go.

Not into reading? Watch this video!

Step 1: Observe and evaluate

What do we normally do when we’re facing a problem? We want to jump the bullet and get it sorted straight away.

But hold on a second and press the pause button.

So, you have a difficult employee; he’s late almost every morning. When he’s not, he spends most of his time on Facebook or Instagram. Suddenly, you have forgotten the actual reason you hired him. But surely, there was at least one

At some point, you wanted this person to work for you. Either for his skills, attitude, or appearance. So, don’t let it slip away as if it never happened.

Before you take any actions, evaluate and observe the situation with clear perspective. Collect the facts and identify the exact toxic behavior and disturbance it creates for others.

All of us can have a bad day or a week. If a normally well-behaved employee suddenly starts acting out, you need to consider there might be some underlying issues you have no clue about.

Step 2: Record everything

Sometimes, the problem will just go away. You’ll realize that your problematic employee simply had some big life changes, and that’s the reason behind him being constantly late for the past week.

However, in other cases, you must take bigger measures.

If things don’t get better and you have to take further action, it might be difficult if you haven’t got the paperwork done from the start. Therefore, it is important to document the ”incident” from the moment it first occurs.

Everything, starting with informal and formal memos, comments, warnings, performance appraisals, may be needed if, at some point, you must let the employee go.

So, start collecting proof of the issue as soon as you notice any performance problems.

Now, you’re probably thinking:

”Okay, but what if I manage a team of hundreds of people? How can I possibly notice one of my employees has minor performance issues before they’ve grown into problems?”

In such case, it may be worth considering using time tracking software. It will automatically record when your employees come and go, and how productively they spend their time at work.

And if you use DeskTime, the app will also highlight the problematic employees in your admin dashboard. So, you don’t have to check on all your employees in the team.

Step 3: Provide feedback

Problematic employees - give feedback
Invite your difficult employee for a talk. Let the person know why you think there’s an issue and give your honest feedback.

Okay, so now you’ve identified your one problematic employee. You have records that prove the performance issues and reached the point where you actually have to confront them.

The problem is not going away, and you have to fix it. Otherwise, the situation may get worse.

So, here’s what you do:

Invite your difficult employee for a talk. Let the person know why you think there’s an issue and give your honest feedback. Make sure you focus on the employee’s disturbing behaviors, not the individual as a person.

Meet your employee with an open mind. That is, don’t assume that the person has bad intentions and he’s cheating the system on purpose.

Keep in mind that your worker’s actions may be caused by several reasons, including poor communication between the employee and management, lack of training, as well as personal problems.

In other words, be ready to accept that the problem actually lies in the management.


One research found that only about half of employees worldwide know what is expected from them at work. It means, half of the employees work without being 100% sure about what the management is expecting. That’s crazy!

So, again:

Give your employee honest feedback on his performance but avoid blaming him. You don’t know – the problem may as well be on your side.

Step 4: Listen (like you mean it)

Once you’ve explained to your employee why you think he’s having performance problems, it’s time to ask questions.

Your aim is to dig deeper and figure out the reasons behind your employee’s actions. And the more you understand the underlying characteristics of the behavior, the better chance you have to resolve the situation effectively.

Remain calm, positive, and listen to the person without drawing one-sided conclusions about what is happening to the individual.

Show the employee you’re listening and occasionally summarize what he says. And be receptive to everything you hear. Yes, even the criticism about your company or your duties. His feedback may actually uncover larger company-wide concerns.

Step 5: Set the rules and goals

problematic employee situations - set the rules
Ask the employee under review to participate in establishing his performance targets.

Once you’ve found the reasons behind your employee’s misbehavior, you can now work towards setting the rules and common goals to improve the performance.

For instance, in the case of regular lateness, you could present the company’s policy and discuss the consequences for not complying with it.

If your employee is always on time, however, underperforming, you both can agree on additional training.

In either case, your task is to provide the necessary support. His task is to improve performance.

It’s important the employee under review is participating in establishing his performance targets. So, ask him what he’d like to achieve and learn, and how he’d like to improve. This will motivate the person and make him feel like he’s part of the decision-making process.

Step 6: Be consistent

Once you’ve communicated your concerns to the problematic employee, make sure your actions and words are consistent.

Don’t show the same disturbing behavior yourself, nor be okay with it in some cases bit not in others.

Let’s say you tell somebody off for spending too much time on Facebook. But then, everyone else in the office has their Facebook page open all the time and you do nothing about it.

Or you don’t like that your employees are late for work, while you come and go as you please, without explaining the reason behind your absence.

You have to understand that, if you don’t obey the rules, it doesn’t show a correct example to your team. Thus, you can’t expect others to follow the rules that you can’t comply with yourself.

Put simply:

The employee’s task is to improve work performance. Your task is to be a role model.

Step 7: Follow up

Once you’ve explained the rules and set the goals, schedule a follow-up with your team member to measure improvement. This will help your employee know where he’s at.

If you see progress, start by recognizing it. If you ask for development and you can see the effort made in accomplishing it – don’t forget the acknowledgement. Otherwise, it’s way too easy to demotivate a person who has just tried his best to make improvement.

Find out how the employee is feeling so far and if he’s managing his tasks well. Document the improvement and agree on further actions. And offer further help if necessary.

Also, remember that in some cases (like low productivity), you can’t expect immediate results.

You need to give the person time to learn how to prioritize his workload and manage it better. Keep setting tasks for improvement, rather than expect instant success.

Either way, keep providing feedback on performance and appreciate improved actions.

Step 8: Set outcome if things don’t change

give a warning to employee
Invite the employee into a meeting room and ask him to sign the warning.

So, here we are. A few months have passed, but your staffer is still showing up late for work, despite all your efforts.

Now, this is the time to make an official warning.

Don’t make a scene out of this. Invite the employee into a meeting room and ask him to sign the warning. This will ensure he understands the consequences, as well as show that you are serious in your actions, not only words.

Explain to your employee why you are giving him the warning and make sure he understands. Let him know he must improve his behavior immediately and give him a clear deadline for when you need to see results.

Or you will be forced to let him go.

Step 9: Know when to ask for help

Here’s the truth:

Sometimes, the underlying issue for employee’s misbehavior can be deeper than your competency levels.

Employees may break the rules due to an emergency at home, psychological or even physical problems. In either of those cases, you will require professional help.

If your company has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), then you can advise your worker to seek assistance there. The program assists employees with personal and/or work associated problems.

If there isn’t an EAP within your organization, you might have to look for help inside your community.

Either way, the lesson here is: don’t try to solve everything by yourself. Sometimes, you can do more harm to your employee than help him.

Step 10: Know when you’ve reached the end

Letting the problematic employee go
Remember that it’s not only your business that suffers from an underperforming worker. It’s your other employees.

Firing someone can be the toughest thing a manager or a company owner must do in their career.

It’s like breaking up with someone, never pleasant.

But once you’ve reached that point where the ”relationship” is no longer beneficial to one or both parties, it’s not worth dragging it out.

Make sure you have all your documentation in place, so you can show you’ve done everything correctly. Your documentation is proof that you tried your best to help the person to improve.

No matter how awkward and unpleasant this step is, you’ve got to understand: sometimes, it’s better to part ways with an employee than continue working together.

If you won’t be courageous to cut the ties when it’s the right time, you will risk destroying a healthy work environment.

Remember that it’s not only your business that suffers from an underperforming worker. It’s the other people in the company who get irritated, demotivated, and lose interest covering up for someone who couldn’t care less about being a part of the team.

So, don’t let this happen and take action.

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