Moving difficult staff isn’t the answer

This weekend, I had lunch with a good friend.  Duncan is the Head of a Learning & Development department for a business in the City, and his team sit within the HR Department.  We don’t normally talk shop, but Duncan’s currently managing a “difficult employee”, and is receiving absolutely no help from his HR colleagues.

I’ve come across such difficult individuals before: One member of staff that I had the luxury of managing, many moons ago, had the misfortune of loosing a close relative every six months.  In between she would also experienced a range of terrible personal tragedies.  And when she ran out of ideas, she put in a grievance.    I was lucky enough to have a solid line-manager who decided to look into her situation more carefully: the death certificates did not seem to exist and the counter-fraud team were unable to unearth any police incident numbers. Finally my boss “called her bluff”.   At that point, the employee gracefully handed in her notice.

Duncan described to his “difficult employee’s” antics to me, and she is demonstating similar behaviour.   Her negative behaviour is becoming destructive for both Duncan and the other members of his team.   But their HR department are not prepared to support Duncan in taking a tough line with this member of staff.  With a significant sickness absence record (not really a surprise), the “difficult employee” has little chance of being successful in finding another job.   However, light is at the end of the tunnel:  she has just applied for a transfer to another part of the organisation.  The Head of HR is endorsing the application and so it is likely that soon she will move from Duncan’s team, only to be a burden for another part of the organisation.

Duncan is incensed by what is happening:  with an HR team who are advising a “hands-off” management approach,  he feels paralysed by the situation.  He is also angry that the HR team aren’t demonstrating best practice by actively support him in managing this difficult member of staff.  For me, I feel that the HR team in this organisation is letting  our profession down.  And whilst City institutions continue to handsomely reward their Executives (which I have no issue with, but then I don’t always agree with the Daily News) they are also continuing to waste money and resources by not appropriately managing their staff.  Surely it is cheaper to dismiss this individual and then fight any claims via an Employment Tribunal than to retain them and their difficult behaviour in employment indefinitely?

I have been lucky in my career to have worked with strong and professional HR and Occupational Health practitioners who have supported me when I’ve been working on cases concerning difficult employees.  It’s our responsibility as HR practitioners to consider all the options, the risks and benefits of each, as well as the cost implications when we work with line-managers who are trying to manage “difficult employees”.  And let’s face it, moving staff is the easy solution.   The one thing that I truly believe is that in such situations moving the difficult employee isn’t the answer.  Whilst it might seem to solve today’s problem, it does not help anybody (the manager, the employee, the team or the organisation)  in the long-term.   So why do it?