Transferring Trouble – Problem Employees in the Workplace

We first heard this story from a fishing guide on the Snake River in western Wyoming, so we know it must be true. There was this bear somewhere in Wyoming. The bear was had a nasty disposition and had invaded some campsites and threatened visitors. To solve the problem, a decision was made to transfer the bear from Wyoming to Idaho where scientists believed he would be more cooperative and less dangerous. So, they tracked him down, injected him with a sedative and transferred him to Idaho. The change in location, they thought, would be good for the bear and he would, henceforth, be a better bear.

A local scientist heard about this transaction and thought it would be a good idea if he were present when the bear woke up, so he could observe the bear and write an interesting article that might be published in some scientific magazine. So, the bear — tranquilized, slumbering and comfortable — was moved to a forest in the middle of Idaho. The scientist hovered close by, waiting to observe the bear’s behavior and record the notes from which his article would emerge.

The bear, however, unaware of the scientist’s amicable intentions, awoke in an even nastier mood, took a quick look around at his new surroundings, and attacked and consumed the scientist. The moral of this story is, “Transferring a troubled bear is transferring trouble, for the bear will be just as much trouble in his new location as he was in the old one.”

Transferring troubled employees, just like troubled bears, is simply transferring trouble. The odds are overwhelming that an employee who was a problem for you in one location will be a problem for you in the new location. An employee can be troublesome or difficult for many reasons, particularly if the offending behavior affects the image, reputation or services of the employer.

Signs of a troublesome employee can include the following:

  • Talking too much and disturbing co-workers and others.
  • Always having to be “right,” thereby irritating others.
  • Coming on “too strong,” and being overly aggressive or pushy with others.
  • Working too slowly, not meeting production or sales goals, performing poorly.
  • Critical, uncooperative or nasty attitude toward management and the job.
  • Bullying co-workers. The worst bullying these days is “cyber bullying,” through the Internet and social media.
  • Not telling the truth about things that happen at work. Some people are compulsive liars. It’s a character issue.
  • Creating problems at work by behaving poorly to co-workers, managers and customers.
  • Continually questioning authority, perhaps refusing to perform certain duties.
  • Explosions of angry behavior or not controlling one’s temper.

So, we do not recommend that you transfer an employee from one department or location to another, in the hope that a change in venue will produce a better employee, for this improvement seldom, if ever, occurs. To the contrary, if an employee is troublesome or difficult, the best approach is to counsel with the employee, document the counseling sessions and then, if the situation reaches critical mass, consider dismissing the employee.

How Do We Handle This?

When it comes to dealing with troublesome employees or resolving issues of employee conflict, we have very few absolutes. To the contrary, what we do have are “tried and true management principles that, over a period of time, tend to work.” Here are five of them.

  1. Seay Management’s First Rule of Leopardology – A leopard doesn’t change his spots. Character issues tend not to change. A bear will behave like a bear.
  2. The best predictor of future performance is past performance. If a person has done well in the past, he or she is likely to do well in the future. And vice versa.
  3. It’s next to impossible to “make” an employee perform at a high level – the best employees are self-motivated. Better to hire good employees at the front end than to try to change them later.
  4. We can have some degree of success in changing behavior, if the behavior is performance related. We will have less success if the behavior is related to character or personality temperament.
  5. Transferring a troublesome employee from one location to another, in the hope or improved behavior, almost never works. It’s simply transferring trouble.
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