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How to effectively manage a difficult but valuable employee

Mary Nestor-Harper Author, writer, speaker, management and career consultant MJNH Consulting

Just about every company has one - an employee with special or unique skills, training, or certifications the company can’t do without but who seems to cause problems. They may have connections or are the only one who knows how to keep critical processes going. These individuals have qualifications that are difficult to find, recruit, and retain, and they know it. They think they are so valuable they can break the rules and get away with it. Managing these employees takes understanding and a few strategies to keep them at their best.


Do set clear expectations

Valuable employees earn that title because of the contribution they make to the company. A software design wizard or a marketing expert may think that they know their job and what the expectations are. They may also think that because they make a unique contribution, they don’t have the same rules as the rest of the “average” staff. Being late, skipping meetings, and missing deadlines is a problem for the rest of the team. Setting clear expectations on work habits and performance will avoid misunderstandings and keep everyone on track.

Do recognize their unique contributions to the team

Managers who have to deal with problem employees may feel reluctant to praise their accomplishments. It’s easier to point out their shortcomings or just stay silent. Regardless of how skilled, confident, and self-assured, every employee needs encouragement and praise. When you do single them out, stress not only what they did, but positive ways they worked as part of the team to accomplish the goal. What gets rewarded is repeated.

Do make them part of a team effort when possible

Some highly talented employees with special skills like to work alone. They may not have the interpersonal or communications skills to work well with others. They can appear to be aloof, critical, or just hard to get along with. Make the employee part of a team so they can improve their interpersonal skills. Make it clear that they are expected to not only complete the project but also contribute to the success of the team.

Do coach and counsel periodically

Some problem employees are unaware of their actions or how they come across to others. Some feel because they make a unique contribution they don’t have to be nice and agreeable. Silence is also feedback. If managers don’t take the time to coach and counsel employees on their work habits, they may not know there is any need for improvement. A coaching session, or more formal counseling may be the wake-up call a valuable-yet-problem employee needs.

Do make them trainers and mentors

Putting a problem employee in the role of leader or trainer does two things. First, it acknowledges he is a recognized expert who has something valuable to share with others. Secondly, it make them accountable for the success of someone else. Trainers and mentors are expected to be role models.


Do not assume they know the rules--or their job

The buzz around the office or plant preceded her. The company was lucky enough to snag the top expert in the field. This person wrote the book on fund-raising or bringing companies from the brink of disaster. The red carpet leads to their office or cubicle. With all the excitement and preferential treatment at the start, don’t expect this employee to buckle down with the rest of the employees. Don’t assume they will follow the rules without a strong orientation just like the rest of the employees. Skill and high performance in one setting may not measure to the same standard in another. Your valuable employee may develop into a problem if they don’t have the same orientation and onboarding to the company as the rest of the team.

Do not ignore complaints from co-workers

No matter how valuable an employee is to the company, his co-workers are valuable, too. It’s easy to disregard complaints from other employees about a key employee. You may be willing to give him a little more leeway, but the reluctance to deal with a problem employee can be regarded as favoritism or even worse - weakness on your part in dealing with a problem. Why risk the discontent of an entire work group for one valued employee who is causing problems. If you don’t listen, the team will stop coming to you at all, which could lead to the loss of more than one valuable person.

Do not reward unacceptable behavior

Bonuses, promotions, opportunities to network and attend industry or professional conferences are all ways to reward outstanding performance. An employee may be valuable to the company and be a poor performer. He may rate a satisfactory rating on a performance review and make everyone else’s work day a nightmare. Don’t reward a valuable employee just to keep him happy or on the job. A reward can be a de-motivator when undeserved. Your valuable employee may be happy, but the rest of the team won’t be cheering him on if he didn’t earn it.

Do not pass judgement without investigation

If you have a chronic problem employee, it’s easy to blame her when things go wrong. If she has a reputation for poor customer service, a negative comment from a customer had to be her fault. If the deadline was missed, she must not have completed her part of the project - again! Errors on the spreadsheets, missed sales goals. All fingers point to the person who is difficult to get along with. There are always two sides to every story (and complaint). Don’t automatically assume guilty without a thorough investigation. Withhold judgement until you’ve done all the interviews and reviewed the facts.

Do not fail to document and discipline

No one is irreplaceable. Be sure you understand the company’s disciplinary policy and follow the proper documentation and notification requirements. Human Resources can advise on the proper procedures. Terminating an employee with nothing in his file, or only positive feedback and a glowing performance review can be suspect and trigger an EEOC complaint after termination. So can a string of warnings and disciplinary actions in a short time period leading up to termination. An employee’s HR file should be a true reflection of his performance and value to the organization.

Jumping cartoon

Valuable but problematic employees can be challenging. Treat them fairly as you would any other employee with consideration for those who have to work every day with them. Make every employee feel valued and respected. You’ll have a stronger team that will work together so everyone is successful.

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Mary Nestor-HarperAuthor, writer, speaker, management and career consultant

Mary Nestor-Harper, MJNH Consulting, is an author, prolific writer and consultant on business, human resources and leadership, and an award winning speaker. She has delivered human resources, management and customer service training in 43 of the...

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