By: Rob Parker

Sometimes an employee may become uncharacteristically difficult to work with because he/she is coping with a stressful personal matter.  Sometimes you hire an employee who is difficult to work with from the start and remains that way through the course of his/her employment.

So, what do you do if this particularly difficult employee is also very good at what he or she does?  To replace this person would require a lot of time, effort, and money, with no guarantee that you will be able to find someone with the specific skills necessary to perform the job.

This was the case when a long-term employee (we’ll call her ‘Charlene’) became so offensive, threatening, and objectionable to work with that most employees avoided her altogether.  If Charlene even thought that someone was looking at her, she would confront that person.  This had been going on since she began working at the company.  There were many complaints by co-workers, but management was concerned about finding a replacement with her expertise.  As a result, management would listen to the complaints, but would not take any further action; only suggesting that the person complaining just stay away from Charlene.

One day, Charlene confronted a young new-hire who had glanced in her general direction.  The new-hire was stunned by the confrontation and the language being used toward him.  A coworker stepped in to defend the new-hire, which prompted an even more heated exchange with the ‘defender’ suggesting that they “take it outside”.  It was at this point that Charlene said she was going to lunch and stormed out to her car.  When management found out about this incident they decided that it was time to terminate Charlene’s employment when she returned from lunch.

Charlene did not return to work when lunch was over. Another employee noticed that her car was in the parking lot and went to see if she was in the vehicle.  Charlene was on the phone with 9-1-1 and appeared to be in distress. When first responders arrived they loaded Charlene into the ambulance and drove off.  No one knew about her medical condition or where they were taking her.

Later that day, the employer received a call from one of Charlene’s relatives informing them that Charlene had suffered a heart attack and suggested that it was prompted by the incident at work.  The employer was left with a very difficult decision:

  • Follow through with Charlene’s termination immediately despite the circumstances
  • Delay Charlene’s termination until after she was able to return to work
  • Allow Charlene to return to work without termination and wait for another incident to occur

What could have been done differently?

This predicament could have been avoided if the employer had taken documented progressive disciplinary steps much earlier and placed the responsibility of correcting Charlene’s conduct on herself.  The employer received many complaints prior to this incident but never sat down with Charlene to address the issue. Each complaint they received but took no action on was a missed opportunity to correct the bad behavior.

Do not wait to address behavioral issues in the workplace until they become even more problematic, possibly irreversible.  Although most employers wish that these issues would vanish on their own, they seldom do. You could end up with a bigger predicament than you started with. Address it now.