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How to Train Your Crazy Employee (Hint: Buy Some Snausages) [HorroR Stories]

Dear Mme HR,

I am a manager and I have about 10 people reporting to me. Most of my employees are great. I have one employee, though, who is really good at her job, but she is crazy. When I say “crazy” I mean that she is almost impossible to deal with. None of my other employees, or managers, want to talk to her, so I carry the brunt of dealing with “Molly” because I’ve learned how to approach her on things and can usually withstand the onslaught I get back from her. I’ll try to be more specific.

Recently I was talking to one of the line supervisors, she was saying how a group of them went to a happy hour at a local pub after work on Friday. She said “Even Molly came with us!” I, perhaps foolishly, brought it up to Molly in a very positive way, like “I hear you guys had fun the other night.” Much to my surprise, Molly completely freaked on me. She couldn’t believe that I had heard about that, wanted to know who else knew, if I had told any of the “higher-ups.” She then went to the employee who told me and yelled at her for telling me. Unfortunately, I have a lot of instances like this; I’ve come to just expect that if I have to deal with her on anything, she is going to freak out on me.

Here’s my problem. Aside from all the freaking out, she is really good at her job. I don’t want to try and replace her, I don’t want to do what she does, I don’t even want to think about it. So how do I handle this? Do I just put up with the crazy because I’m benefiting from this? I’m afraid the rest of my staff is going to quit. Is it worth it?

Crazy’s Keeper

Dear Keeper,

I’ve already covered the crazy boss, it’s only fitting that now I discuss the crazy employee. I think that every manager who has been around a while has found themselves in a similar situation, where they weigh the cost/benefit of Loony Lucy who can create a mean financial statement but then goes and yells at the UPS guy cuz he’s wearing shorts. Only you can really answer the question “Is it worth it?” because you seem to be the only one who is suffering from her diatribes and histrionics. Everyone has their flaws I suppose, just some are easier to overlook than others.

Here’s the thing: in my HR experience, and based on some random Psych class I took somewhere around the Ice Age (Ahh icecaps, I remember you fondly), I have learned this: behaviors that are rewarded tend to continue while behaviors that are not rewarded tend to stop. Pigeons press the button for a pellet, dogs sit for a Snausage, you get the idea. Most people hate it when I compare them to pigeons or dogs, but put simply and in more human terms: there is a reason she is acting this way.

Finding the reason could be the key that helps you in this situation. Or, it might make you more frustrated. Or, your attempts to discover the reason could trigger a meltdown of the most epic proportions which could lead to a hospital stay, or a good storming out. Either way, problem solved! Wait, that makes me sound callous, and I’m many things but not that.

Remember, Mme HR’s motto for 2013: Compassion. Give me a minute…

Ok, I guess what I’m saying here, in the most roundabout way possible, is that maybe your treatment of Miss Molly is actually encouraging her behavior more than discouraging it. I imagine you are being extra special super nice to her because you don’t want her to freak out, you’ve eliminated the possibility of her having to talk to anyone else at the company that doesn’t like her (and the feeling is probably mutual), why wouldn’t she act this way? You are tip toeing around her because you feel like she’s more valuable than a Faberge egg, and no one should ever feel that way about an employee. Everyone is replaceable. EVERYONE! Say it with me in your best Gary Oldman: “Eevvverrrryonnnne!” Don’t be lazy now. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Write her up for yelling at the co-worker who told you about the Happy Hour. This is unacceptable behavior and you need to be clear. When you do this, and when you discuss this with her, remain as neutral and unemotional as you can. Don’t say “you can’t yell at people,” say “it is unacceptable to yell at co-workers, it is my expectation that every employee in this department will treat each other with professionalism and respect.” Don’t point fingers. Avoid the word “you.” When the histrionics start, don’t engage and don’t appease. Tell her that you are going to give her a moment to compose herself and WALK OUT OF THE ROOM.

2. Stop letting her and everyone else off the hook. When something comes up that requires her input, don’t coddle her or protect her from the conversation, include her. So Joey has a question about Molly’s financial statement? Make Joey walk with you over to her desk and ask her. If Molly starts freaking, stop her. Say to her, “Molly, we need to discuss this in a calm professional matter. If you can’t do that right now then we will come back when you can.” THEN WALK AWAY (unless she composes herself). Make Joey accountable for following up with her. Stop letting your employees “delegate up.”

3. Coach your other employees who may have had issues with her in the past and who don’t want to deal with her that if she starts in on them they need to WALK AWAY. Suggest the language I use in point #2.

4. Continue to praise and encourage the things she does well. “Great financial statement, Molly, your best yet!” Don’t relent, even if it’s just a random email every once in a while, be clear which behavior you are rewarding.

5. Model the behavior you want. Employees, especially savvy employees, model their behaviors on their bosses and the people at the company who are more successful than they are. So, watch yourself, do you react dramatically in front of your employees when things don’t go your way? Do you complain or take things personally in front of them? Stop!

6. Start cross-training other employees on the tasks that Molly does that you think make her irreplaceable. Make her create desktop procedures. Frame it under a “Business Continuity Plan” umbrella so she won’t get suspicious. This hopefully will make you feel better, and it’s a good idea in general. Any one of us could get hit by a bus at any time; it’s like a giant game of Frogger out there—so best to be prepared.

Feel better? Here’s where you start reeling in what seems to have gotten out of your control. You thought you were controlling it, but you’re not. The key points here are: 1. be very specific about what your expectations are regarding her behavior and 2. don’t get personal or emotional. You can’t shield your employees from things they don’t want to deal with. They are adults, this is the real world. Just because you’ve learned how to deal with her doesn’t mean they won’t learn the same. I don’t think they will quit about this. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. You can take your cues from how the employee she yelled at about the Happy Hour story reacted. Is she still there? Again, you need to establish the pecking order here—you are the manager, which means you get to delegate all the things YOU don’t want to deal with, right? Right!

Don’t feel better? Is your stomach tied up in all sorts of sickening knots at the thought of doing the things I suggest above? Here’s another bit of advice, and this one is for free: When you are a manager, directness is your friend. Forgive me for making a dog analogy again, but in training my own wayward pooch, I have discovered that at times when I wanted to coddle him or hug him, he just wants me to tell him what to do. He doesn’t need my sympathy, or my (sniff!) hugs, he needs me to be the human and tell him what to do in this situation. That’s my job as leader of our little pack. He wants me to tell him when to eat, when to walk, etc. He’s better behaved WHEN I do that, and he loves me just the same. I mean, I guess he does, who really knows? He’s a dog. Still, employees want you to tell them what to do. Trust me. They don’t have to agree with you, they just have to respect you, and I’m pretty sure that if you do what I say above in a consistent fashion? They will.

Good luck out there,

Mme HR

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