Managing Employees Who Irritate Others

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Working in close quarters and spending a majority of waking hours together can lead to friction among your employees. Even the most sophisticated and well-meaning people can bring quirky behaviors to the workplace. Eliminate productivity-deflating problems by setting expectations for civility and intervening to deal with these common irritations.

Talking about Coworkers

A gossipy employee can easily start rumors, presumably based on a tiny bit of truthful information but misrepresenting a coworker. Suppositions supplant productive conversations. Unchecked gossip becomes destructive.

Advise employees to bring comments about coworkers to supervisors, rather than discussing concerns among themselves. Give employees an avenue to confront problems without meddling in others' affairs or speculating about motivations based on incomplete, inaccurate information.

Ignoring Work-Related Problems

An overly optimistic, proud employee glosses over problems or pretends they don't exist. She may insist that she can handle minor glitches in the workday and is steadily, successfully working on solutions. A yet-to-be-discovered trouble may be brewing: perhaps a key account is upset about a late shipment or daily results on a production trial aren't being tracked according to protocol.

Very often, a coworker has intimations that something is wrong but can't pinpoint the problem. He may be having a difficult time connecting with a customer contact who is now vetting new suppliers rather than returning phone calls to your company. He sees that a log isn't being updated on a daily basis but isn't privy to tracking requirements.

Breakdowns in operational controls and workflows frequently cause these problems. Whatever the reason, employees lose effectiveness and become irritated when they suspect that a colleague is hiding or denying the severity of a problem.

Encourage employees to bring problems to your attention. Ask them to give you the facts in a businesslike way without editorializing and assigning blame. Do your own investigation; you may discover that inventory hasn't been available for on-time shipment or the new system isn't capturing test data as expected. Address the source of the problem and follow up to make sure that operational changes yield hoped-for results.

Taking Care of Personal Concerns

A talkative, socially-oriented employee may be tying up business phone lines or more likely, is found frequently chatting and texting on a cell phone during work hours. Engaging excessively in personal, non-work-related activities can be disruptive to colleagues.

Avoid establishing a policy that is difficult to enforce, such as zero tolerance on phone calls. Set guidelines that acknowledge each employee's need to deal with some personal issues during the day while respecting workplace boundaries.

Remind employees that visual barriers, such as cubicles, don't provide an audio barrier: others can overhear conversations without intentionally eavesdropping. Most employees will want to guard their own privacy whether or not they are concerned about disturbing coworkers. To accommodate personal business that can be handled only during traditional work hours, establish a break policy so that employees can leave their workspace and make phone calls or read and send text messages.

Being Insensitive

The offending employee displays a lack of appreciation for the colleagues. A newly hired employee mimics the accent of a peer during one-on-one training sessions. Another repeatedly tells vulgar jokes.

Don't allow the offender to lay blame on the victim for being overly sensitive. Tell the employee how his actions affect others' perceptions: namely, that he seems unsophisticated, culturally clumsy, and unprofessional.He will most likely stop so that he can portray a polished image even if he doesn't care about the feelings of other employees.

Hoarding Office Supplies

One employee seems to have excessive amounts of office supplies on hand, typically stored in her desk. As a result, the rest of your staff always seem to be scrambling for a notepad and pencil, and quickly raid the supplies closet immediately after a delivery. These innocent persons may even seem to be the hoarders rather than the one or more employees who quietly stock their own shelves.

Let employees know that — though your business won't keep nearly infinite stock on hand — you'll still make sure that they have the supplies they need. Assign a person to be in charge of ordering supplies according to a schedule or pre-set inventory level, and tell your staff to alert that person to needs. Devise a plan for unusual items with a long order-to-delivery lead time but generally, use next-day delivery services offered at no charge or arrange periodic trips to the store.

Constantly Needing Someone to Listen

The needy employee always seems to have a personal problem but doesn't have a reliable support system outside of work. He talks incessantly about various aspects of the problem, soliciting advice, rehashing failed solutions, and trying to get assistance. Productivity for the troubled employee and those surrounding him are low.

Don't insist on a sterile, non-empathetic environment but don't let angst take over your workplace. Observe interactions so that you can approach the employee directly rather than referencing their coworkers. Tell the employee that work efforts are being compromised by ongoing, relentless discussions. If you discover that problems are deep and difficult to solve, make a referral to an outside counselor.

Communicate Your Expectations

Use your judgment to determine when to approach employees privately and when to hold a meeting to address problems. Ideally, schedule a weekly team meeting to discuss workplace problems along with business opportunities and successes. Place issues on the agenda rather than calling a special session to discuss irritating behaviors. Lay the foundation for appropriate interactions and remove fears of favoritism by giving all employees the same message at the same time in the same context.

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