The Best Techniques for Tackling the Worst HR Problems

September 29, 2016 Shrad Rao

While not every organization has a dedicated, in-house human resources (HR) team, you can bet that every company has problems that need to be addressed from an HR standpoint. Even the smallest startups can have problems that, if not corrected, can have a significant impact on operations, productivity, and the bottom line.

Whether you outsource your HR, or you handle it for your company, you need to be ready to tackle common and not-so-common issues in the workplace. Here are some of the worst HR problems you may encounter, and how they can be addressed.

1. The Negative Employee

Virtually every organization will deal with a negative employee at one point or another. It’s almost like a rite of passage for leadership and HR teams and something that shapes them professionally.

Negative employees can take a lot of forms, from those who are generally just difficult to deal with to those who develop a negative attitude as a result of some other influence or factor. Sometimes you have an employee who may be an excellent worker, but seems to have a personality clash with every other individual they work with – including leadership.

What’s unfortunate about this type of employee is that regardless of the cause of their behavior, or the form it takes, their attitude is almost always toxic to the workplace. They require greater time and energy to handle, ultimately keeping management hostage. They also make the workplace uncomfortable for those around them.

“When talking to your employees, let them know that the negative attitude is a performance issue,” writes Megan Moran, senior HR specialist for Insperity. “When they are disrupting the team, not contributing, and affecting productivity, it’s as if they’re not performing their job responsibilities. Discuss how their behavior affects the team, the company, and their relationships. Be very clear about what’s expected – and outlined in your company policies – and make sure they understand what will happen if the behavior continues.”

How to Handle Negative Employees:

  • Listen to them. Keep an open mind, despite the negative attitude. You may uncover an issue and be able to provide guidance to a solution.
  • Give clear feedback that focuses on behavior and how it impacts the workplace.
  • Document issues revolving around negative feedback.
  • Address negative behavior consistently so your team knows that it is not okay, regardless of the reason.
  • For organizations without clear guidelines for this type of scenario, set consequences if behavior doesn’t change – and stick to them.
  • Don’t let self-talk and judgement poison the well. Keep personal opinions separate when working with a negative employee.

Working through negative feelings and emotions is critical to leveling off the atmosphere of the workplace. A paper by Wharton Management Professor Sigal Barsade studied the effects of mood on the workplace and found that virtually all moods can be contagious – including subtle displays like anger and negativity through frowning.

2. Employees Who Won’t Follow Direction

Having an employee who refuses to follow instructions can be a massive headache for HR and leadership. Insubordination not only undermines leadership’s ability to effectively manage the team, but it also interferes with typical processes that must remain efficient for business to go on as usual.

But, there’s a difference between employees who refuse to follow instructions (insubordinate) and those who want to handle the process on their own (independent).

It can be easy to get the two confused, especially for a manager who expects their team to toe the line without question and get the job done. Before trying to address employee behavior, it’s important to understand what kind of behavior you’re dealing with and make the distinction between the two.

How to Handle Employees Who Won’t Follow Directions:

Once you identify the type of behavior you’re dealing with, you can address it accordingly. For example, an insubordinate employee can be more easily dealt with by following procedures for addressing the behavior, coaching, and setting expectations — then taking disciplinary action if need be.

An independent employee, on the other hand, one who is both productive and talented, yet somewhat insubordinate in trying to manage themselves, requires a different approach.

Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz spoke about the different approaches to dealing with unique individuals in a piece for Business Insider. He referenced the relationship between NBA coach Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman. Jackson was once asked during an interview, “Since Dennis Rodman is allowed to miss practice, does this mean other star players like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen can miss practice too?”

Jackson replied, “Of course not. There is only room for one Dennis Rodman on this team. In fact, you really can only have a very few Dennis Rodman’s in society as a whole; otherwise, we would degenerate into anarchy.”

In short, independence should be welcomed to a point. Encourage employees to take initiative and be independent, but set limits. When independence crosses the line into disruption of the workplace and clear insubordination, it must be addressed.

3. Employee Conflicts

“While conflict is a normal part of any social and organizational setting, the challenge of conflict lies in how one chooses to deal with it,” writes Mike Myatt, author of Hacking Leadership. “Concealed, avoided, or otherwise ignored, conflict will likely fester only to grow into resentment, create withdrawal, or cause factional infighting within an organization.”

Conflict is not unusual in a workplace. One study conducted across Europe, the United States, and Brazil found that 85% of employees, at all levels within an organization, experience some measure of conflict. In addition, U.S. employees spent around 3 hours each week dealing with some manner of conflict. That translates to roughly $359 billion in labor hours – a huge cost to organizations.

Leadership and even some HR teams may choose to let some conflict slide if it seems insignificant, but this is a bad approach. What may seem insignificant is not only causing stress for the employees involved, it’s also costing the company money.

In the same study, it was found that 25% of employees call in sick or stay away from work to avoid conflict. (Click to Tweet)

As many as 10% reported that conflicts led to failure in projects or the loss of talent, when someone left a company.

Here's How to Handle Conflicts Among Employees:

  • Meet with the parties involved to address the situation. Try to do it in a neutral space for everyone’s comfort.
  • Establish ground rules for the parties so everyone is respected – this includes listening objectively to the position of others.
  • Ask each employee to state their perspective on the conflict with “I” statements. Focus on specific issues rather than other employees.
  • Summarize the conflict and confirm with the parties involved.
  • Work together to identify key solutions, including brainstorming together so all parties are involved in the resolution process.
  • Summarize the solutions and work with employees to find the best solution for everyone.
  • Set a plan of action with goals, including follow up with leadership and the employees involved.

Not all conflict is handled easily, and you may need to seek outside assistance. This is especially true if there are legal issues involved (discrimination, harassment, violence) or if conflict escalates and leads to other abusive behavior.

4. Problematic Management

There have been numerous studies over the years that have sought to determine the primary cause of unhappiness in the workplace. In every case, from a 2012 study cited by the Harvard Business Review to a more recent study from Woohoo, the cause is clear: Bad management is killing morale.
Bad management can come in a lot of forms and can impact employees on different levels. Some common employee complaints include:

  • Being micromanaged.
  • Having to report to inexperienced management.
  • Management that talks badly about other employees.
  • Condescension and disrespect from management.
  • Lack of support from leadership.
  • Lack of praise or recognition from management.
  • Fear-based management styles.

Unhappiness can have a serious impact on workplace performance and the bottom line of your organization. In the Woohoo study, 19% of respondents said they had a bad day at work every day or almost every day, while another 29% reported having a bad day more than once a week. Another 16% responded that they had one bad day every week.

That’s almost 65% of employees suffering through bad workdays, in many cases because of strained relationships with management. But what are the root causes of problematic management?

Some managers have developed narcissistic or aggressive tendencies over the course of their careers, which can make them difficult to handle from the beginning. Others begin to manifest these issues over time – they don’t necessarily arrive at your organization that way. It’s sometimes due to the organizational structure and processes.

An employee promoted into a management position, especially with limited to no experience, suddenly has a lot more responsibility. Relationships with employees change and it can strain an inexperienced manager.

How to Handle Problematic Management:

Regardless of the level of leadership, these issues should be approached in a corrective manner, with the recommendation or requirement that the problematic manager take a leadership development program.

U.S. Companies are spending $14 billion annually on leadership development programs, and that’s because they get results. 

But it's important to realize that these programs on their own won't create great leaders. As Andrea Derler, Research Manager at Bersin by Deloitte told us, "An exclusive reliance on formal programs as the only means for leadership development is one of the primary reasons for the lack of leadership talent. ” Their recently published leadership research found that there are 17 important practices for building a context for leadership growth. The five most critical of these are: "Communication of the leadership model, Exposure as a learning method, HR and business collaboration, Knowledge-sharing, and Risk-taking.”

5. High Employee Churn

Employees leave for a variety of reasons, and you’ll never be able to completely stop employee turnover. What you can do is understand it and try to reduce it by managing the most common causes in your organization.

According to Louis Efron, author and CEO of Purpose Meets Execution, there are 6 reasons good, talented employees will exit a company:

  • Employees don’t see or share the company’s vision.
  • They have no connection to the big picture or mission of the company.
  • A general lack of empathy from leadership.
  • A lack of effective motivation.
  • No discernible future at a company.
  • A lack of enjoyment.

There are certainly other reasons for employee churn, ranging from compensation concerns to conflict. However, the causes listed above can have company-wide impact if not addressed.

Consider that 30% of companies report that it can take upwards of a year for employees to reach peak performance. (Click to Tweet)

In a survey from Allied Workforce, 25% of companies don’t have any form of training in their onboarding programs. As many as 60% of companies don’t set goals for new hires. That can create growth challenges for new employees that often lead to churn.

Here’s How to Tackle Employee Churn:

Be proactive. Find solutions that address the causes before they become a source of churn in your company.

  • Successful managers take the time to sell employees on their vision, bringing them on board to get them excited about major goals and achievements that are down the road.
  • While strategies might change, the mission of the company does not. According to a Gallup poll, there is a direct correlation between employee retention and employee alignment with the mission of a company.
  • Create a true open-door environment where employees feel they can speak out, share, and be heard. Empathize and encourage engagement, and employees will feel like their presence at the company is valued.
  • Employees want more than compensation. They have intrinsic motivators and want to be recognized for good work. Give more than extrinsic rewards to retain your top talent.
  • Your employees need to know they’re not in a dead-end job. Show them they have a future at the company. Create clear programs and maps for growth, so the employees worth retaining know they can move forward.
  • People want to enjoy coming to work. Find ways to create enjoyable, motivational programs. Invest in employee engagement. Relaxed, happier employees are more productive employees.

Lastly, focus on the onboarding programs in place for new employees. The key to trimming your employee turnover rate starts during the recruiting and hiring process. Audit your onboarding process to measure how new employees are trained and prepped for success.

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6. Shifting Company Culture

In an age of accelerated launches and lean startup models, new organizations are springing up and growing at exponential rates. The focus on growth can sometimes lead to a loose organizational structure – one in which employees act and are treated more like family, or buddies. The corporate structure is missing, and while this can create a more relaxed atmosphere in the beginning, it can also create problems as a company grows.

As new employees are added, the rapid growth could lead to a more rigid structure and policies that didn’t exist in the beginning. This cultural shift in the company may be difficult for current employees, giving rise to internal conflict and push-back.
Likewise, old behavior and habits that were generally accepted in the smaller startup workspace can now create issues around discrimination, harassment, and feelings of hostility as new employees onboard who may not mesh with the lingering, looser structure.

How to Handle a Changing Culture:

Employees may have difficulty letting go of “how it used to be.” The best approach is to acknowledge their feelings. Any kind of change is difficult for employees, and a cultural change in the workplace can be a significant shock. There really can’t be a transition period, though, especially where the previous culture and behavior would be considered offensive by normal operating standards.

  • Empathize with employees, but make the new policies clear and set expectations.
  • Remind them that it was their hard work that grew the organization, not the behaviors or culture that were permitted, and the success is because of them.
  • Focus on the intrinsic reward and the company’s need to maintain the same momentum with them on board.

7. Finding the Right Talent

A company is only as strong as its employees, but as any HR rep knows, that talent can be difficult to find. Sometimes new openings are posted and virtually no resumes come in. Other times, you may post new career opportunities and get a flood of submissions – but no viable candidates.

With wells running dry but competition climbing, companies are bumping their spending on acquiring talent. A study in 2015 showed that companies have increased their spending on acquiring new talent by 7%, translating to nearly $4,000 per new hire. (Click to TweetIn many cases, that’s 3x the amount it costs to onboard and train a new employee. 

The same study revealed that, on average, it can take nearly 60 days for a company to fill an open position. This window alone can impact the bottom line of an organization as workloads shift to cover staff shortages and processes slow down.

It’s critical to focus on finding the top talent, and finding it quickly, to limit costs.

Tips for Talent Acquisition:

  • Favor employee referrals over recruiters. Your team knows the culture and the values the company is looking for. Trust them to help you source great talent.
  • Focus on the behavior of candidates, not just on their skills - from handshakes to how they acted when they met the first person at their interview.
  • Establish needs from departments and managers based on processes and current workflows. Don’t just create generic job descriptions. This will help better match candidates to the work that is actually being performed.
  • Promote openings the same way a company broadcasts promotions. Post on specialty job boards, through employee networks, on LinkedIn, social channels, and the company website.
  • Promote the culture of your company and brand it as a great place to work. This can help bring talent knocking before openings are even posted.
  • Build relationships with colleges, which could include the co-creation of a career curriculum. This can help you get first shot at talented new graduates ripe for the picking.
  • Recruiters can be a good investment. Check your network and get referrals to well-performing recruiters with a reputation for locating top talent.

A final tip: “Create a competitive compensation package that reflects your culture,” says Steve Browne, HR director at LaRosa’s Inc. “Then put the dollars in front of candidates at the start and you’ll likely have to negotiate less.”

8. Employees Not Opening up to HR

Companies succeed because of the performance of employees, which is ultimately driven by communication. Teams share information, employees report to leadership, and everyone communicates. At least, that’s how it should be.

But a recent survey from Lupton Fawcett Denison Till revealed that employees may have difficulty with communicating – particularly around issues that would require the attention of HR and leadership.

Among the items discussed in the survey, the greatest concerns were:

  • 42% of respondents were reluctant to discuss pay.
  • 22% were challenged by discussing promotions.
  • 19% were reluctant to talk about inappropriate behavior.
  • 19% were concerned about flexible working requests.
  • 18% were anxious about discussing absences due to illness.

If this reluctance to bring up and broach issues in the workplace is occurring in your organization, there’s a good chance that other, more sensitive topics aren’t being raised either.

How to Address Employee Communication Issues:

A lack of communication is a serious problem for HR. You and your team can only be effective when employees are sharing thoughts and concerns. Otherwise, your team only becomes a one-way channel, doling out policy and disciplinary action.

  • Meet with individual employees as well as departments to investigate if there is a communication barrier.
  • If you feel employees may still be reluctant to discuss these issues directly, solicit anonymous feedback from all workers. Use the data you gather to audit your company’s approach to communication and reporting.
  • Create an environment and processes that are conducive to employee communication and help them find their voice.

Ultimately, this will greatly contribute to reducing employee churn. Problems and employee desires can be addressed before they become bigger issues or spread among employees before reaching HR.

Document Everything

This is only a small list of some of the problems an HR team may come across. No matter what you face, it’s critical that you document every action and point of engagement with employees. Even with an at-will state, you should have accurate documentation that backs up and aligns with your processes for employee discipline and coaching. From a struggling new hire, to a highly difficult and negative employee, documentation is the safeguard to show that your company is making every effort to help employees grow with the organization.

Get More HR and Management Tips

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The Definitive Guide to Interviewing Candidates
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Pull Up a Chair

Tell us some of the best HR advice you’ve received or let us know what other topics and questions you’d like us to address. (If you choose to share a personal HR story, be sure to protect your’s and your employee’s confidentiality.)

About the Author

Shrad Rao

Shrad is our Go-to-Market maverick. His passion and commitment to our company is evident during many sleepless nights as he ponders our next move. Some say he might be Batman – well, it’s really only him saying that so we don’t actually believe him – or do we?

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