Rethinking Employee Discipline: How to Work With Problem People

A manager meets with a problem employee about poor performance

Problem people are exhausting. These employees spend most of their time either complaining about their responsibilities or explaining why they can’t possibly accomplish what needs to get done. When someone notices they’re not doing their job, the problem employee is often furious for being reprimanded and complains that they’re being harassed.

Someone then pulls out the employee handbook, looks up the progressive discipline policies, then starts writing warnings and notes to the file. This approach is all about protecting the organization if there is a claim of discrimination or harassment after the employee is terminated. Once you start down this path, it becomes adversarial, escalates, and often ends with termination.

In the meantime, the problem person and everyone they deal with will have to live through the drama. The employee is not going to get better at their job; they’re just going to get mad, which will make things worse.

It’s Time to Rethink Employee Discipline

The phrase “employee discipline” is part of the problem. Employees aren’t children or pets to be disciplined. They are not property, not expendable, and not the enemy. (Can we please stop using war metaphors for work?) Employees, even the problematic ones, are human. They have feelings and agency, and you invited them to your organization to be part of your team. You might even call it a family. (Don’t. Because it’s not. And that’s a good thing.) On some level, you’re responsible for this person being there. And you have options on what to do and how to handle these situations besides setting someone up to be fired.

Identify the Actual Problem

First, do you know what the actual problem is? Is the employee going through some health issues, a divorce, or other personal issues? Or is the employee unhappy at work because of their manager, colleagues, the culture, or their job responsibilities?

If you really want to address the problem, find out what it actually is. How to address an employee with a health condition underlying their performance issues is very different from how you handle an employee who’s dealing with an unreasonable manager.

Once you understand the issue, find out what the employee wants. The people closest to the problem often have creative and interesting ideas on how to solve it. Always consider options proposed by the employee.

Look at Your Data

Sometimes, the employee just needs some time to deal with whatever is going on. When the person has performed well in the past and what’s going on is uncharacteristic, you may be seeing the symptoms, not the problem. If you’re pretty sure you don’t have the full story yet, look at your data and people analytics.

  • Look at what’s changed for the employee.
  • Look at what’s changed in the department or location.
  • Check voluntary turnover, absences, performance, engagement, pay equity, diversity, flight risk. Is there anything that looks off? If so, check into it.
  • Try a quick survey and have a question like, “What else would you like us to know?”

You’ll be surprised at what you learn.

Solve the Problem, Not Just Your Problem

Positive incentives generally work better than negative consequences to inspire people to do something differently. But you also don’t want to create rewards for conduct you don’t want. When you give people special treatment for behaving badly, it just inspires more bad behavior.

Instead, focus on the problem, its causes, and what you can realistically do about it. Put everyone on one side — the side that wants to solve the problem.

Here are some solutions that don’t involve either discipline or termination.

Time off:

Sometimes what people need is to deal with one thing at a time. Time off can make a huge difference for someone dealing with medical, emotional, or other kinds of stressful situations. Know what paid time off is available and what benefits may apply. Then work with the employee to find an approach that works for everyone.


If the person needs to see doctors or therapists, or get help for addiction or abuse, facilitate their healing. You’ll keep a valuable employee, and they’ll remember you helped them when they needed it.


When your problem person is new to the organization, or even new to their role, the trouble may be that they need to take a class, brush up on some skills, or learn to use some tool or technology. Before you decide it’s not going to work out, help them get what they need to succeed.


It’s amazing what a difference a different role, location, or manager can make. If any of these factors are part of the problem, consider changing them.


Employees need some control over their days and work. They need agency, autonomy, and the time and trust to get work done. If people are burnt out because they’re in meetings all day and trying to get other work done in the cracks, there are probably several things that need to change on the organization’s side. Talk to people and find out what’s in their way. Then try things to see what works. And yes, most meetings can be emails.

Sometimes, the answer is termination. But even that can be handled with care.

Compassion is Key

Human beings going through big, emotional, and challenging situations deserve compassion. Compassion means care and understanding. It doesn’t mean giving up, giving in, placating, or being nice to avoid upsetting someone. It means seeing yourself and the other person as fully human, imperfect, and worthy of kindness.

The thing about problem people is that they have problems. Sometimes it affects their work. But no human is a problem. Problems are opportunities for change. It’s a chance to get things right.

When we’re making big changes in our own work lives or someone else’s, it’s essential to see past our pain and emotional discomfort so we can do the right thing. Compassion for ourselves, the other person, and the situation is the best way to get there.

To learn more, check out Problem People: What U.S. Employers Should Know About Employee Discipline.