Five Types of Problem Employees

Alan Melton

Strong management and leadership are important when people become a problem … because, at some point, people in the workplace will become a problem.

Staff members – let’s just call them “employees” – can create difficulties due to issues like their attitude, performance, ethics, or lack of knowledge.  These personnel can be salaried employees, temps, consultants, or contractors.

Their behavior can wreak havoc on deadlines, morale, and profit.

Five Types of Problem Employees

Here is our take on 5 types of problem employees, and how to get the most out of them.

1. The New Hire

They’re so needy. As a rule of thumb, it can take 3 months on the job for new hires to get a feel about how everything operates, who does what, how to perform their job, and their role in the success of your business. As a result, they constantly look for help from supervisors or co-workers, or waste a lot of time doing research. Worse yet, they fumble around and end up delivering a poor-quality deliverable that has to be redone. They can’t perform their duties independently without excessive supervision or draining the time of other staff members.

Young or recently hired staff may lack good sense about the right ways to behave … they may waste time playing on the internet, or distracting their co-workers. They may not act appropriately with management, peers, or customers by telling jokes or not being professional. They may take long lunches or hang around in the breakroom.

How do you handle them?

  • Welcome new hires with an orientation, led by Human Resources or a supervisor:
    • Conduct an orientation session that provides basic information like:
      • an outline of the company, history, and structure
      • organization charts
      • contact information for key areas
      • layout of their building
      • company mission statement or vision and values
    • Share key behavioral policies or procedures such as:
      • Dress code
      • Incident reporting
      • Attendance/lateness/tardiness
      • Internet use
      • Data security/confidentiality
    • Show them the resources, guidelines, and rules for doing the work required:
      • Safety guidelines
      • Online libraries or document repositories
      • List of links to internal applications like time-keeping tool
      • Document templates and forms
      • Tutorials

Every new employee will have a gap – a lack of knowledge, training, skill, or whatever. There’s no perfect employee. Beginning a new job with the resources and support will make new hires feel welcome while building the confidence and competence to be more productive.

2. The Critic

This person can’t find anything positive to say. They focus only on seeing what’s wrong, and sharing that opinion with anyone who will listen.

This type of employee comes across as an annoying know-it-all. They seem to find pleasure in pointing out any issue, mistake, or glitch – whether real or perceived.

The Critic presents a challenge in morale, teamwork, and meeting deadlines.  

They may think their feedback is helpful but, instead, alienate themselves from teammates, managers, vendors, and (potentially) customers.

How do you handle them?

  • When the situation merits it, management should pull them aside to commend them for a negative comment that was actually helpful. Thanking them for their contribution should be followed up by counseling them on improving the tone or content of that message; “delivery is everything.”

Let them know better ways to present a problem that will get a more positive response and improve team relationships.

  • Ask them why they seem to only focus on the negative. Are there problems in the workplace that underlie their need to be critical? If so, engage with the employee to fully understand their perspective and help them to solve a workplace dispute or issue.
    • Emphasize your expectations in performance appraisals for this employee to make positive workplace contributions, while reinforcing that identifying a negative should only be the first step; they should also put effort into finding a potential solution.
    • Consider how The Critic’s eye for picking up problems can be applied in a useful way. Perhaps they might assist in system testing to identify bugs, or as a safety inspector to point out gaps in your company safety plan or procedures.

Creating an environment of positivity results from allowing every employee to feel they can air concerns and issues, to have the tools and empowerment to resolve problems, and to think and act independently.

3. The Resistor

Regardless of age or gender, this employee doesn’t want things to change.  They’ve been doing things the same way for a long time, and don’t see the need to do their job any differently. The Resistor refuses to use new hardware or software. This type won’t follow new processes or methods. They reject the new way, clinging to the old.

Their modus operandi is to resist change. Period.

How do you handle them?

The best initial step is to assure employees of their value to the company. Sympathize with them that most people don’t like change, because it means re-learning, a change in routine, more stress, and being forced to do things differently.

Follow this by letting them know why the change was made. Reassure them that sufficient time will be given to everyone who has to learn about and adopt the new.

Change can be threatening when your expertise in the old way is no longer pertinent. If applicable, tell them that – with time – you fully expect them to be the subject matter expert of the new way.

If it would appeal to this individual, ask them to go through the new software or process and provide feedback on bugs, errors, or other problems. 

Be prepared to show them how the change will ultimately make their work easier or faster.  Perhaps remind them of a time when change was made, however long ago, where they mastered the new practice.

Do what’s needed to inspire them to change. To reiterate:

  • Express why the change is for the good.
  • Let them know everyone has to make this change.
  • Encourage them to provide their “expert” feedback.
  • Emphasize that their job will become faster and simpler.
  • Communicate to them in a professional yet empathetic way.

4. The Maverick

This type makes major decisions without engaging with co-workers or management. Perhaps they chose a software provider without going through the right channels. Or they changed the project plan with proper approvals.

These employees can be perceived as a self-absorbed rebel, doing their own thing to defy the normal process.

While the Maverick may think their fast, independent actions is taking the initiative to save time or money, their renegade behavior often does just the opposite.

How do you handle them?

Communicate that while decisiveness can be a good trait, it’s not the culture of this workplace when it affects budget, the team, or other resources. Decisions must be made using established protocols – and that typically means the proper paperwork, due diligence, assessments, and approvals.

Follow up activities:

  • Reiterate company standards and practices they must follow (may necessitate that employee re-take a class or tutorial)
  • Discuss and document suitable goals to re-establish trust with peers, co-workers, and managers
  • If appropriate, give them a written warning that such actions are detrimental to company policies or processes and, if continued, may lead to further disciplinary action
  • Explore gaps in culture, processes, or policies that allowed this to happen

5. The Under-Performer

They show up to work, but are virtually absent. This employee type has little motivation or commitment. Lacking engagement in their job, the Under-Performer tries to “fly under the radar.”

They may check off the box on a task, but only put the bare minimum effort into it. They deliver tasks late or stall for more time.

How do you handle them?

Consider the possible reasons for their lack of sub-standard performance:

  • A recent bad performance review
  • Contentious relationship with co-workers or management
  • A stressful or taxing project or effort
  • Personal problems (relationships, finances, grief, etc.)
  • Medical issues
  • No longer feels their work or skills are valued

Engage with the employee to first communicate that you value their contributions. Next, ask open-ended questions to determine what may be causing the under-performance:

Is there anything you need to do your job better?

Do you think your manager appreciates all that you do or can do?

Are there any problems at home or work that you could use help with?

If you were in charge, what changes would you make?

Give the employee as much opportunity to share what’s on their mind while letting them know you understand that everyone struggles from time to time. If needed and available, offer a referral to a Human Resources representative or third-party Employee Counselor for assistance.

Leadership should always seek to lead employee members to a higher level of engagement to increase productivity, customer satisfaction, morale, and profit. Meanwhile, optimum engagement will reduce missed deadlines, morale issues, and loss of reputation.

Improving engagement relies on management’s ability to investigate, communicate, empathize, and lead employees to an improved outlook on themselves and their work environment. 

When facing problem employees, take time to consider if your company is truly providing what employees need to thrive.

Are we giving them the right information, guidance, and tools at the right time?

Have we provided clear directions and expectations?

Are we furnishing the appropriate feedback and rewards

Have we created a culture in which people are engaged and motivated?


Ensure the success of your business by helping your people to be successful. Understanding that behavioral problems will occur, listening to the problem employee’s story, and having an approach to overcoming these problem types will help you maintain balance, stability, and productivity.