What To Do About Employee With Roller Coaster Behavior?

I’ve been told by other managers in the building that Darla has come across as rude to them when they approach her, even just to say hi. I’ve also been exposed to her rude demeanor at times on a rare occasion. It just seems like it’s been a roller coaster with Darla for years. You don’t know which Darla you’ll get. There’s months she’ll be fine and very friendly and then there will be periods of time where she just doesn’t want to talk to anyone and comes across as standoff-ish.

I’ve asked her if everything is okay and if there’s anything we can do for her. She says “I’m fine” and “No, I’m okay” when she clearly is not in a good mood. She’s been employed here for 9 years and I’ve read her files from years ago and it seems like I am not the only one to have noticed her roller coaster-like attitude. (I took over as her manager a year and a half ago when the previous manager retired.) She’s been told on more than one occasion over the years to improve her attitude as well as treating co-workers nicely. This will be the fourth time this issue has been brought up to her over the years.

It’s gotten to the point where she needs a “slap on the wrist” every time her attitude flares up and then she seems to calm down. At times I will hesitate to ask her a question because I feel like I will get a negative tone in her response. Though this behavior has been brought up on more than one occasion on her yearly evaluations, I’m afraid of going the route of letting her go. She really depends on this job to support her because I know she struggles to make ends meet at home.

My empathetic side comes out at this point because I wonder: Is her life outside of work contributing to her attitude or be the root cause? Is there something else outside of work adding to her tone? Is there something at work going on that I’m unaware of even though I asked if everything is OK or is there something we can do for her?

She does her job decently, not 100% but a solid job nonetheless. I assume that’s a valid reason to keep her? My plans are to just leave her alone to get over what is bothering her and let her continue being employed until she gets over what’s bothering her. But then again if history is to repeat itself, the negative behavior may return soon. How do I handle this? Thank you for your attention.

Answer: We are not attorneys or HR experts, but your work situation with “Darla” fits our focus on honest and effective workplace communication. The severity of the situation, your workplace culture and the level of support you will receive from higher decision-makers will influence what you can or want to do, but I think you will be able to adapt some of the following thoughts and suggestions.

1. Do some analysis of Darla and her work, as a way to have a factual and realistic viewpoint for your consideration, as well as to discuss with those higher in the organization, if needed. An established concept about work effectiveness is that it involves two factors: Performance and Behavior. If either one of those is deficient, an employee is not optimally effective. Think about each of those separately.

*Performance: What is Darla’s job description? Are there gaps between what Darla is supposed to do (quality and quantity) and what she actually does? If you consider the work she does, overall, would you say it is close to perfect, very good and not deficient enough to care about, good, but with room for improvement, lacking in quantity and quality almost daily? Does her work get done well, without needing correction or re-do, in spite of her personality or behaviors?

If there are gaps between what you consider good work and Darla’s work, what does she need to be doing or not doing, to be considered 100% effective?

*Behavior: What are the behaviors that are most problematic? What facial expressions, words, tone of voice, level of communication, apparent attitude, are most noticeable? Are there other employees who act similarly or is it only Darla? How does she need to communicate and behave, to be considered 100% effective in her behavior at work?

So, now that you have considered those things, where are the biggest gaps? Is it just her behavior that’s concerning or is her performance not very good either?

Another aspect of work effectiveness is Ability and Willingness. It takes both of those to perform and behave effectively. Consider the gaps you just thought about, between what Darla does and what is needed for the work to be done optimally. For each of those things, consider if you think Darla is able to behave and perform correctly. If she has done so in the past, she most likely can do so in the future, unless something has changed that makes a difference.

Does she give evidence of being willing to behave and perform correctly? If she makes adjustments temporarily that at least shows a degree of willingness. But, if she doesn’t stick with it, she may find the changes to not be worth the effort, so she’s not willing to keep trying.

That issue of Ability and Willingness is important, because it lets you know as a supervisor whether she needs to learn something or if she simply has to commit to doing something.

A final part of the analysis: If you were back in time, interviewing Darla for her current job, knowing what you know now, would you hire her? Let’s say you were told you had to hire her, but you could put her on probation. What would you tell her she would have to start doing, do more of, less of or not do at all, in order to retain her job?

You may find, after thinking about it, that Darla is a bit of a pain in the neck, but not to the extent that she isn’t earning her salary and not the extent that others can’t deal with it. Or, you may find that Darla is a problem for everyone and that work would go better without her. Saying, “That’s just the way she is” is poor leadership and you certainly don’t want to make dozens of others try to find ways to adjust to her, if she is really disruptive. If she’s just a mild irritant, that’s something else.

So what do you think? How much effort do you want to put into guiding Darla to better performance and/or behavior? Do you think you’ll be dealing with this a year from now? Do you want to put up with it for the next ten years? What is a goal date for being able to say the Darla problem is solved? Those are just things for you to think about, because they need to be confronted at some point. You sure don’t want to work and work and end up back in the same place two years from now.

2.  That brings us to a question, for which you will want to be able to articulate a response: Why does it matter that there is a gap between the behavior you want and the behavior she exhibits? What difference does it make in work? The reasons may seem obvious, but quite often supervisors have never really put it into words. They just know they don’t like it. But, that’s not enough.

Are any of her behaviors violations of rules or policies? Read the employee handbook and be aware of the language about showing respect, courtesy or professionalism in the office. It’s often helpful to repeat that language when talking to employees about concerns.

In Darla’s case, does her behavior keep people from sharing needed information with her? Does it make people hesitate to ask her questions? Is it a blatant violation of a rule or policy? Could it put the organization in a liability situation?

The most common result of discourteous or just uncivil and unfriendly behavior is that it is a distraction to others and, even if just for a moment, it takes the focus of coworkers away from their work and puts it on feeling perplexed, frustrated, hurt or angry. When those distractions build up, the entire work environment suffers, because people think about it, talk about it, worry about it and become more angry about it as time goes on. Employees should be able to work without dreading the next interaction with someone or wondering what they should say or do the next time. Look at what a distraction Darla’s behavior has been to you!

Apply the same question to any deficiencies in Darla’s performance of the tasks of her work. What difference does it make that it isn’t 100% effective or accurate?

3.  By the way, if Darla has acted acceptably for periods of time in the past, you can use that to show her that she can do it in the future. Describe to yourself the way she acted during a good time (how she responded to frustrations, how she greeted people, etc.) That way you will have specific behaviors to suggest and you and she can both  know they are doable, because she has already done them. She can’t argue that “that’s just not my style”, because she’s the one who did it.

“Darla, yesterday afternoon I saw you smile at Karen and put the papers on her desk in a courteous way. And last week when I told you about that new project, I know you didn’t want to do it, but you gave me your opinion in a clear way then did it and acted friendly to me about it. Those are the ways I want to see you responding to me and others all of the time, in every interaction.”

4.  I’ll digress here for a moment, to discuss something you mentioned about a time when Darla acted disgusted and rolled her eyes. You had put a notice to all employees to remind them about doing some specific tasks. Darla’s response probably reflected the thoughts of most of the other employees, even those who are supportive of your efforts. I mention that, because part of correcting Darla’s behavior will be ensuring that you model the best way for her to handle routine and unusual work situations and frustrations. Ensuring that you are effective in communicating about work (especially her work) can help you.

Using a sports coaching analogy, coaches don’t put a notice on the bulletin board on Monday that says, “We missed some points yesterday because not everyone had their plays memorized. It is crucial that plays be memorized and that all players fulfill their roles during the game. PLEASE make sure you memorize the plays for next week and fulfill the roles of your position, so we can be a winning team. Thanks!” Instead, the coach talks to individual players about how they can improve their performance. Team-talks have their purposes but individual player improvement is done directly.

An example in your workplace is that you know it would not be effective to try to improve Darla’s behavior merely by putting up a written notice telling everyone to be sure to be courteous to each other. Darla’s past supervisors may have done just such indirect hinting. I’ve heard supervisors give long corrective lectures at staff meetings, when only one person failed to get something done. It was frustrating and irritating for everyone else and the person involved didn’t know it was directed at him.

So, as part of thinking through Darla’s situation, think about how you can improve your own work by talking to people directly about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Walking to someone’s work area and asking, “How did the work go today?” is a good way to start. Or, “I saw you making lots of copies today, what were those for?” You may already be doing that kind of communicating and if so, good for you.  (I hope you know I’m not implying you are not an effective supervisor, I’m just reminding you of the things we all tend to forget in the busyness of work.)

5.  What options do you have for sanctions if Darla continues her behavior, after you have coached her for improved communications? Is it a case of no action or dismissal? Is there anything in between? Would anyone higher than you support dismissal, given that she has apparently worked there for a number of years? Would HR think you have enough documentation to merit that kind of action? How much would it take? Does your organization have a Performance Improvement Plan program or something similar? Those are designed to be guides rather than sanctions, but most employees take them as a warning notice.

6.  Talk to your own manager about the situation and let him or her know that you would like to help Darla improve her behavior once and for all, so that this issue doesn’t keep coming up over and over. Your manager is probably aware of the history and may have some advice about it. If you think it would help, talk to HR or a similar resource. By starting with them, you are more likely to get their support.

Keep the approach of wanting to improve the workplace and the overall effectiveness of everyone. Taking that approach will help you avoid the appearance of targeting Darla in a vindictive manner or becoming obsessed with her, to the exclusion of your other managerial and leadership roles. As time goes on, ensure that you are discussing things other than Darla, as you talk to them about work.

That first conversation will be a time when you can find out how far they are willing to go to finally get this settled. If they would rather you tolerate Darla’s behavior than cause her to be upset, at least you’ll know. That doesn’t mean you can’t make an effort, but you’ll know there will be a limit to what you can do on your own. Quite often employees will improve, whether they agree they need to or not, just to keep a supervisor from being focused on them.

7.  A good way to deal with a long-term problem that has never been completely dealt with before, is to make the next time become the first time and use it as a foundation for consistent, effective improvement efforts. Your biggest challenge will be to stick with it. At this point, Darla has reason to think that nothing bad is going to happen if she doesn’t make changes. At the worst, she’ll have to listen to a supervisor warn her again, but that’s not so painful. What you want to do is to make June 20th or whatever date you choose, be the last work day that Darla’s behavior was a thorn everyone else had to work around.

Taking the “next time is the first time” approach keeps you from seeming to come down with a giant hammer all at once, after years of only hints. Also, it is much less stressful for you. You don’t have to memorize a speech or dread a closed door session. All you have to do is respond mildly but directly and immediately to something Darla says or does that you do not want her to continue doing.

For example, the next time Darla rolls her eyes at you or someone else, in a purposely disgusted way, you can say, with a friendly but correcting tone, “Darla, please don’t roll your eyes like that, it looks really rude.” She may respond with all the reasons she had for rolling her eyes, but keep your focus on how rude it looks to respond to people or situations that way.  “That’s a separate issue. What I want you to remember is that in this office we’re not rude to each other, so please don’t do that again.”

If there is a next time, you can say, “We talked about eye rolling just last week. It’s unprofessional and disrespectful and I don’t like it, and neither does anyone else. Stop doing it or I’ll have to take formal action about it and I don’t want to do that. OK? Just break yourself of that habit.”

If there is a next time, move to a formal warning about discourtesy or disrespect, or take the action your manager and HR approves.

She may not roll her eyes, but if she snorts or shakes her head or acts disgusted in obvious ways, all of those are disrespectful and discourteous.

8.  Many supervisors and managers find that the most difficult part of intervention is saying the first few words to let the employee know his or her behavior is not acceptable. As a result, they leave the area and stew about it, then other work gets their attention and that day slips by—and the next and the next and the moment is long lost.

If you have a situation that slipped by, but you don’t want it to happen again and it’s important, be honest about it but still discuss it. “Last week I didn’t say anything when you rolled your eyes and acted disgusted about the notice I put on the bulletin board, but it really bothered me and I don’t want it to just fade away. I felt that was disrespectful and unprofessional for you to roll your eyes and say something rude and I don’t want you to do it again. Can you see why I’m asking that?”

Then stop and let that sink in. No lecture is needed, just say it. She’ll have something to say, probably justifying why she did it. Stay focused on her behavior. “Instead of rolling your eyes and making a rude remark, what could you have done?” She’ll respond with something  and you can bet that anything she says will sound better than what she did. Then you can say, “That would have been better. So, will you remember that next time and be courteous and respectful?”

The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard, is an older book, but it’s message stands the test of time. Read online about the One Minute Reprimand. It is tremendously beneficial to supervisors. It puts the pressure on the employee in a helpful way and takes if off the supervisor.

9,  All supervisors need a quick word or phrase or two they can use to quickly correct behavior. If further conversation takes place, at least there was a foundation of immediate response. The following words and phrases have been used successfully, even though they may sound rather silly when put into writing. Combine these with facial expressions ranging from mild exasperation to strong disapproval, according to the situation.

*Uh oh, that’s not good.
*What was that all about?
*That’s enough.
*Ouch! That was mean sounding!
*That’s not helpful at all.
*I don’t think you meant that as badly as it sounded.
*That’s not like you.
*Let’s do a replay on that and make it better this time.
*That’s not the way we treat each other around here.
*I spoke courteously to you, I expected courtesy back. Can you give that to me?
*Think about what just happened and plan on meeting with me in a bit. I’ll call you. (That kind of statement gets attention every time.)

10.   I want to mention your concern about what might be causing Darla’s behavior. I care about people too, but I also realize that supervisors and managers are not counselors and can only suggest resources. A harsh truth is that a workplace is not a retreat where problematic people can be paid full salary while they continue their problematic behaviors at the expense of the business and others.

So, I suggest putting your focus solely on her workplace behavior and performance. By now she knows that you care enough to ask and she knows you are open to her discussing such things. She knows about resources available to assist employees, if there are any. (That kind of information would be bulletin-board worthy.) Everyone has something going on away from work, but we find ways to work effectively anyway.

I often say, “We don’t own your attitude, but your paycheck rents your behavior and performance.” In this case, you don’t have control over Darla’s life away from work, but you do have responsibility for her behavior and performance while she is in the workplace. I also often tell people that even if everything else is going to heck, the one solid thing they have is their job and they should protect it.

11.  Keep a coaching mentality. Coaching is designed to help guide toward improvement. Coaching involves talking about what should have been done INSTEAD of what was done that wasn’t effective. Coaching nearly always involves follow-up to see how the improvement feels.

You may not have to have coaching conversations with Darla, if she makes changes after your first corrective statement to her. (I doubt it, but it could be.) But, if you are discussing an event or a specific problem, you will be doing more than a one or two sentence statement. In those cases, coaching techniques are very useful.

Rather than telling Darla exactly what she should do, ask her what she thinks would have been better. “What would have made Dave feel more comfortable about talking to you?” “What could have calmed that conflict between you and Cindy?” “What do you see as your role in resolving that problem?” The more you ask questions that require an employee to respond thoughtfully, the less stressful for you and the more worthwhile for them.

My final thought is this: When you need to deal with one employee, make sure you’re also interacting with all the others. Be purposeful about improving the overall workplace. Look for ways to show leadership and ways to move the organization forward. Keeping that approach allows you to not only solve problems but to also build yourself personally and professionally.

Best wishes to you! If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things are going and what progress you have made.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.