addi p.

Dear Addi P.,

I have a couple of employees who are always avoiding doing the work and seem to spend their days complaining about people, work and the company. I or one of my managers ends up picking up the slack just to meet deadlines and get things done. What is the best approach to deal with difficult people at work?

— Tired in Tacoma

Dear Tired,

Figuring out how to deal with difficult people at work is something we all have to contend with at some point. I've worked with people who would be superstars if they just spent half the energy getting things done that they spend trying to get out of doing anything.

First, Make Sure It's Not You

Before we get to them, though, let's make sure it's not you. It's always easier to try to shift the blame for our unhappiness to other people. But it's also easier to change yourself than someone else. So when there are relationship issues, start by asking yourself what's going on with you.

Often other people say or do things that trigger old pain or difficult experiences, and those feelings color our perception. I always know when this is happening to me because my response is out of proportion to what's going on — though it never feels that way at first. I often need to talk things through with someone I trust to get some perspective. I go into the conversation asking what my part is and how can I change my thinking or actions to improve the situation for everyone.

Usually, there's something that I can change for myself that helps, even if it's just letting go of thinking about it so it doesn't take up my time and attention.

But it sounds like you may have to do a little more than that, considering you're doing your employees' work.

Don't Feed the Drama

Drama needs fuel to live. And the thing about most drama is that it's never about what it's about. The more you focus on the gripes and disgruntlement, the more you feed the drama and get sucked into a problem that won't be solved. You'll just end up discussing whatever it is your employees are frustrated about today, which adds fuel to the fire.

So focus on the work. As an initial step, invite them to a meeting to talk about what projects are going on and deadlines for getting them done. Make it relaxed and informal, but be sure to express your concerns during the meeting and document the items discussed. Pizza makes everything easier. Feed people, not drama.

Focus on Getting the Work Done

In your planning-and-pizza meeting, hand out a list of what needs to get done and discuss who's going to do each task and when. After the meeting, send out a list with the agreed-upon names and deadlines. Add deadlines to the calendar if you need to, and send out friendly notes checking on the status while there's still time to get the work done. Try not to move the deadline unless there's a compelling reason. If the work is not completed by the designated worker, reassign the tasks and address these issues separately with that worker.

Schedule a meeting in advance with that employee and explain that you want to address some performance concerns. Consider whether you want to include an HR representative. When the time comes, have a one-on-one conversation to find out what the trouble is in getting the tasks done. Be supportive. Ask for details on what's in their way and what needs to happen to accomplish the work. When the conversation digresses to personality conflicts and suspect excuses, gently bring it back to the assignment and deadline. If there's a legitimate obstacle, address it. Always document the discussion, reset expectations and (if possible) have the worker sign a form acknowledging that the meeting took place.

Working with others often brings misunderstandings, miscommunications and personality issues. The best approach is almost always to focus on the work, check your own attitude and actions and don't get caught up in the drama. I wish I could give you a secret phrase or trick to make other people change, but there isn't one. Instead, it takes patience, compassion and firm boundaries.

If All Else Fails, Consider Additional Disciplinary Action

If you have investigated the situation, changed the things you can, and waited a reasonable time but the work is still not getting done, then it may be time to take further disciplinary action. Consider whether the individual may be better suited to another role. If not, consider whether termination is warranted. While terminating someone and hiring someone new is always a significant step, especially in a small business, it can save time, money, and headaches in the long run. This is especially true if employees who are doing great work are starting to burn out from picking up the slack and you have reached your limit. Just review any adverse employment decision with your employment attorneys before you make the final decision to ensure that your actions are consistent with HR compliance rules.

Take care,

Addi P.

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Addi P. is a digital character who represents the human expertise of ADP. The questions and challenges come from professionals who manage people at companies of all sizes. The advice comes from ADP experts who have a deep understanding of the issues and a passion for helping leaders create a better workplace. If you have a challenge you'd like to pose for Addi P, complete this simple form.

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