Handling Problem Employees, or Struggling With Our Own Paris Hilton

Have you had to deal with Paris Hilton-like troubled employees in your HR career?

Sometimes, readers say the darndest things – like this: hey, enough about difficult managers already; what about problem employees?

Okay, I’ll admit that I write a lot about stupid and shortsighted management practices, mainly because I’ve seen so many of them. Yes, I’ve worked for some wonderfully smart and supportive bosses in my time (as my wife has been prodding me to point out), but I’ve also worked for many more who couldn’t manage a hot dog cart much less a staff of complex people.

So yes, there are bad managers in just about every organization, but there’s also something else that many HR professionals struggle with every single day: the chronically problematic employee.

What is the chronically problematic employee?

You know what I’m talking about; it’s the person who constantly has issues with others, or skirts the line on company policies, or seems clueless when they overstep the bounds with their fellow workers. They eat up a huge amount of your energy, and time and again, seem to be just one infraction away from getting fired but are also just smart enough to avoid giving you the ammunition to do that.

Yes, when it comes to problem employees, we all have out own Paris Hilton (or Lindsay Lohan, if you prefer).

I was thinking about this while reading about the latest problem with the law Ms. Hilton had recently in Las Vegas.

Here’s how the Las Vegas Review-Journal described it:

After warning Paris Hilton that the Clark County Detention Center isn’t “the Waldorf-Astoria,” a Las Vegas justice of the peace sentenced the celebrity socialite Monday to a year of probation after she pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.

Standing before Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure, Hilton admitted that both the 0.8 gram of cocaine and the Chanel handbag where it was found were hers and said she was guilty of misdemeanor drug possession and misdemeanor obstructing an officer…

Bonaventure sentenced Hilton to two consecutive six-month sentences in the county jail, which were suspended. Hilton was placed on a year of informal probation, meaning she will not have to report to a probation officer. According to the sentence, if Hilton is arrested during her probation, she will have to serve a full year in jail.

“The purpose of this, at this point, is that you change your conduct. If you’re not changing your conduct, the purpose then shifts simply to punishment,” Bonaventure told Hilton in front of a packed courtroom at the Clark County Regional Justice Center. “When you break the law here (in Clark County), there are consequences.”

Whenever I read about the latest legal problems for Paris Hilton, or Lindsay Lohan (who has new legal issues of her own), I flash back to every difficult employee I’ve had to deal with who sucked up huge amounts of time and psychic energy from me and everyone else around them.

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Why the cycle never seems to end

Like the guy I had who kept wandering away from his desk to go sleep in his car in the parking lot (and didn’t see why that might be an issue), or the woman who constantly turned smoke breaks into two-hours of chatter on her cell phone (to the scorn of her non-smoking co-workers), the Paris Hiltons in our employ try our patience, our stamina, and our goodwill.

They suck up the life force of everyone around them, and their actions generate a never-ending flow of memos and paperwork that you spend far-too-much time having to track and worry about. Sometimes they go too far and get fired, but usually, they take their behavior right up to the line before they stop. Then they do whatever they have to do in order to keep from getting canned – that is, until the cost is clear and they start the process all over again.

I’m sure that Paris Hilton will successfully slide through her year of probation, because problem employees like her ALWAYS seem to be able to be able to do whatever it takes to buckle down and avoid the ultimate day of reckoning when they push things to the breaking point. She will take a slightly lower profile and probably avoid Vegas altogether until her probation runs out, and then she’ll start the cycle all over, again.

Is there a strategy for dealing with the time-sucking, life-draining problem employees? I wish I had one, but maybe you have some tips to share for dealing with the Paris Hiltons in your workplace. If you do, post them here (or e-mail me at john@tlnt.com) and I’ll share the best, because when it comes to chronically problematic employees, we can all use all the help we can get.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “Handling Problem Employees, or Struggling With Our Own Paris Hilton

  1. I really like how you compared a problematic employee to Paris Hilton. She has MANY problems that I don't think even the best manager could solve.

  2. If you find that employees are constantly sucking up your time and energy for negative behavior it means that the remedies you are using are ineffective. Bad behavior once, shame on them. Bad behavior twice (or more) shame on you. In the book, Measure of a Leader, my co-author point out that the measure of a leader is the behavior of the followers. Bad behavior on the part of employees reflects bad management. Focus on providing positive consequences of appropriate behavior and make sure there are negative consequences for infractions. Threats don't work.

  3. I've had to deal with employees like this. Early in my career I'd go through the never-ending cycle time and time again because I didn't think I had grounds to fire them (sine they walked right up to the line, but never crossed it). Now, I just fire them. There is no other way to deal with them.

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