Dealing with the Developmentally Impaired Employee

The most vexing problem of business managers – the one that prompts a call to consultants – is the developmentally impaired employee. Managers use different names for them, but they are the ones who don’t follow rules, make excuses for failed performance, argue when corrected, and are counterproductive. What do you do?

The first task of management is to make sure the employee is not reacting to significant problems in the work environment. Toxic work environments bring out the worst in people. Some people are particularly sensitive to work environments that are controlling or hostile. Healthy work environments that utilize our six people principles help employees be at their best.

Next, your most important tool is to have a tight structure which clarifies outcome performance for all employees. Only when performance requirements are defined can you hold people accountable. You should normally be sitting down with all employees (and especially the problematic ones) to review how their work matches against expectations. The discrepancy between expectation and performance clarifies the change needed.

Perhaps half of the problem employees will respond to clarification about needed performance. Some will quit. But, impaired employees tend to have selective filters that make it almost impossible to assimilate negative feedback. They respond defensively because any feedback that challenges their inflated self-concept is intolerable. It’s common for them to refuse to sign performance improvement plans because signing would force them to acknowledge that a problem exists. It is not uncommon for them to respond to interventions by filing a grievance.

During the process it is critical that you use the same approach you would with any employee—providing support, encouraging professional development, and insisting on accountability. You should apply your organizational rules and structure in a very clear, consistent, and impersonal way. Remember, it is not personal. These people are struggling and are their own worst enemies.

Those who do not respond to a balance of active support and structure will need to be let go. The organization requires that only people who are willing (and able) to work for the common good stay on board. It is also a disservice for the impaired employee to be enabled to act out at work.

Of course it is always valuable to consult with human resource specialists to make sure you’re following correct procedure. If the employee fails to change and you have been steadfast in your process, grievances will be successfully overcome.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

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