Problem employees are the ones that are constantly in your thoughts and robbing your mind of time and resources that are needed for the other factors that make your childcare company or school successful. One minute you want to fire them at the top of your lungs, and the next minute you’re worried that they will call licensing or the Board of Education and lie about your school.
Over the last 25+ years, I have discussed this exact problem with many clients and non-clients alike. Here’s the good news…the irritation and anxiety can be remedied quickly, and it’s not as difficult as you might think. Know that you are not alone. By far, the number one complaint nationwide for entrepreneurs in our industry is employees. Contrary to what you may have thought when you entered the business, it’s not undisciplined children…it’s not over-protective or over-bearing parents…it’s not even the occasional power-happy licensing representative. It is employees.
STEP 1: Act, but act in a calm, organized, and focused manner. Don’t let the problem linger as it will typically get worse if it goes unmanaged, and don’t rush strait to “you’re fired” as terminating the employee isn’t always the answer either. There are many positive options between recognizing a problem and showing a potentially valuable employee to the door. So before you speak to the Problem Employee (“PE”), do the following:
- Investigate the issue(s) or behavior(s) that is causing friction. Make sure you detach to the degree necessary to be objective. Base all of your thoughts and actions on facts—not gossip from teachers or other staff members and not pre-conceived results that aren’t proven to have been caused by the PE. Things are not always as they appear. Two examples…I had discussions with two separate clients about two potential PEs. In the first client’s center, the classroom video camera (no audio) made it appear that a teacher was very aggressively reprimanding a toddler. This circumstance was made worse because the child’s mother was watching this action in real time in the center’s office. The parent was furious…until she went into the room and heard her child’s laughter because the teacher was playing with her son—not reprimanding him. In the second client’s center, I was standing with the company president looking into a classroom through a two-way glass. The employee was sitting as the children enjoyed some playtime around her. She wasn’t terribly involved, but you don’t have to be a gymnast to be good teacher. Very quickly we determined that she wasn’t involved with the children. She was falling asleep as her head began to bob like a passenger on long airplane flight. She then laid her head face down on the table in front of her. The company president sent someone into the room to tell her to wake up………She did……..and then she lit a cigarette. The first impression isn’t always right so it’s best to make sure you haven’t decided the outcome of the meeting before the end of the meeting.
- Decide whether you want to handle this matter alone or whether you need the assistance of HR personnel or an attorney. Many people handle these matters alone, but it’s never wrong to be really well-prepared.
- Choose a time and place to talk with the PE. Do everything you can to meet with the PE somewhere outside of the work place. Pick a place where the PE will be most comfortable. The more comfortable the PE feels, the more likely it is that you will receive more and higher quality information. Remember, this circumstance may not be all about the PE. This is an opportunity for you to learn more about your company at the operational level. It’s easy to write Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). It’s much harder to see if they work in the real world. Make sure you set aside more time than you think you’ll need. You don’t get that many opportunities to learn everything you can learn from a meeting like this one.
- Put yourself in the right frame of mind before you step into the meeting with the PE. Make sure you are set to stay in your zone. The anxiety before this type of meeting is usually far more uncomfortable than the actual meeting, but you need to know that you can be engaged with the PE but detached just enough so you’re not drawn into an emotional response or conversation. Your goals are two-fold—determine the facts and decide how to deal with the facts. You do not have to accomplish either or both of these goals in this first meeting.
STEP 2: Meet with the PE. In some cases, the misbehavior will be blatant, and the conversation will take on a more direct tone. However, in most cases the issue will be less obvious…maybe non-existent. When you meet with the PE…
- Put yourself on an even level with the PE. While this may not be true in the boss / employee relationship, it is true as people. At the end of the day, you are the boss and both of you know it. There’s no need to accentuate this fact at this time.
- Recognize the “person” without becoming emotional about it. Some employees respond to constructive criticism well while others are so critical of themselves that they respond much better to encouragement when they make a mistake.
- When the moment comes, don’t be afraid to step into the issue. The PE will know that something is coming. Waiting too long to discuss the point(s) will cause anxiety to rise and focus to decline for the PE and you. Be sincere. Be direct.
- Whenever possible, ask open ended questions. Remember, this is (first) a fact finding mission for you. After you ask a question, stop talking. There may be an uncomfortable silence. Don’t talk. Wait for as long as it takes. Most people have a tendency to want to talk and alleviate the awkwardness of the moment, but don’t do it. The person across from you will talk.
- After the PE begins to talk, let the PE talk until she (he) has exhausted absolutely everything she can say. The more the PE talks, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better equipped you are to fix the issue with the PE. As a bonus, you may also learn things that will help you fix other parts of your company. These things can be as simple as stopping another “sleeper” PE from stealing supplies, to a director that is pocketing cash from unreported clients to systemic problems related to the Federal Food Program. It is very important to let the PE talk.
- The issue is normally easier to fix after you have listened to the PE. If the issue is easy to fix, then fix it. Include the PE in your arrival at the solution. Make sure that it makes sense to the PE and that the PE is on-board with the solution. If the answer to the problem isn’t clear, then don’t fix it yet. Tell the PE that you appreciate the conversation, that you will take everything into consideration and you will get back to her (or him) as quickly as possible. Then…get back to the PE as quickly as possible. It is nerve-racking for an employee to walk around with a cloud over her head. Her performance suffers, and she may convince herself that the she needs to look for another job in spite of the fact that you want to keep her.
- Consider the facts and decide on the best solution.
- Assuming the PE and the circumstance are salvageable, explain your expectations to the PE very clearly. Explain that you want the PE to be part of your mutual or collective work. Make sure that the PE confirms that she understands completely and she is in complete agreement. If she is not in complete agreement or she seems unsure, flush out any hesitation to ensure that nothing has been missed. If something has been missed, ask questions and let the PE talk.
- If you decide that the PE needs to pursue her career path somewhere else, then I recommend that you consult with your HR department and/or an attorney educated and experienced in these matters. Some would say that it is overkill, but I have never talked with an officer or owner of a center or school that complained about being overly prepared. If you think that you have a PE that may be vindictive, you may want to have your attorney sit in on the meeting when the PE is dismissed as your attorney can explain to the PE that any dishonest or vindictive acts will be dealt with aggressively.
STEP 3: Document everything after each meeting.
- Create a written account of everything you’ve learned and how you can use it moving forward. This information is purely for you and appropriate management personnel.
- Create an Employee Evaluation that includes (but is not limited to) a record of the PE’s behavior before corrective action, the corrective action chosen and the PE’s agreement to perform in accordance with the chosen and agreed upon corrective action.
- It’s best to have the evaluation signed by the PE so there is a written record for future reference in the event that additional correction or termination becomes necessary. The PE doesn’t have to sign it, but a reluctance to sign the evaluation may indicate that the PE is not on board with the agreed upon corrective action or modifying her (or his) behavior.
These are guidelines to this process. There is no cookie cutter answer that fits every circumstance or every employee. Pay attention, listen to your instincts and execute. You’ll be fine.
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