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Dealing With Problem Staff

Keys to maintaining discipline and staff harmony
By Lucy Pollard

Continuing our series of recruiting and retaining staff, this month the focus is on dealing with problem staff. What do you do about somebody who is persistently late for work? What about the teacher who never completes paperwork on time? You need to deal with this; firstly to eliminate the problem and secondly if other teachers are aware that you aren't reacting, their performance might start to slip, too. After spending time hiring and integrating people into your team, you probably want them to stay on. They know your school and the procedures well. So, it's easier to retain them than to hire a replacement. However, you might want certain aspects of behaviour to change. The objective is to extinguish the undesirable behaviour without alienating or demotivating the member of staff. A demotivated and resentful employee can do your business harm.

Tact and diplomacy are required for dealing with the issue. This is best done in an interview with the person concerned. There are stages to follow before, after and during this interview. We'll consider them in turn.

BEFORE THE INTERVIEW

If you have been alerted to a problem, consider it carefully before diving in. Gather evidence and observe the problem for yourself. For example, look at class registers or records of work to be sure that the member of staff is not doing the necessary paperwork.

You may feel like you're spying and being sneaky. In fact, you're getting the facts straight. Your checks might reveal that the person is doing their work correctly. If so, all the better. If not, you're dealing with concrete facts and not hearsay, rumours or a general feeling that all is not well.

When you've got the details straight, you need to fix an appointment with the person. Explain that you want to review some aspects of performance. Depending on the severity of the problem and the rules in your school/ country, you can inform the member of staff of their right to be represented. Agree a day and time and organise a quiet room where you won't be interrupted.

You also need to check the rules, by reading contracts or other relevant documents. Rules and regulations will vary according to the labour law of the country you're working in. You might need to check up on the law; this is outside the scope of this article as I'm writing for an international audience. You also need to consider the severity of the offense. Lateness and arriving drunk for classes in a Muslim country are both issues for concern. Lateness can be dealt with by an informal conversation; drunkenness in a country that frowns upon alcohol requires more serious handling. Consider whether the issue is minor, serious or major and handle it accordingly. Then plan how you are going to deal with the interview.

DURING THE INTERVIEW

Turn up on time and ensure you won't be interrupted or overheard. Start by building empathy; for example, "Our relationship is normally very good" or "We value your teaching". Explain the reason for the interview; e.g. "I noticed you were late for class twice last week". This phrase deals in facts, not personality. Contrast it with "You're always late". The first sentence is respectful of the other person and focuses on observable behaviour. It's also difficult to contest the fact that they were late twice. On the other hand, they can disagree with a statement that they're always late. Try to avoid extremes such as "always" or "never" as they can become a point of contention. The objective isn't to spend time discussing how often the person is late. Your time will be better spent resolving the issue. Keep your focus on the behaviour, not the person. "I noticed you were late for class twice last week" focuses on the problem behaviour. Whereas "You don't take your classes seriously" focuses on the person and their personality.

  • You need to explain that there is a gap between expected behaviour and the behaviour of the individual. You can use statements such as:
  • Our students expect their classes to start on time. Your classes started late twice last week.
  • Our fee-paying company students expect written reports every two months. The company students in your class didn't receive their reports on time.
  • Teachers are required to attend monthly admin meetings. You were absent from the last two admin meetings.
  • Young learners need to be supervised all the time they're in the building for safety reasons. Last week you let your young learners leave class before their parents were here to collect them.
  • Teachers need to be sober and alert in class. I noticed that your breath smelt of alcohol on Wednesday.

Using such statements ensures that the employee is aware of the rule or standard. Try to get the person's agreement that your observation is correct. Getting their agreement means that they are more likely to commit to improvement, which is your ultimate goal. If they haven't agreed you can't do much to improve the situation. Your detective work before the interview will come in useful here. Again, focus your discussion on behaviour, not personality. All of the above focus on facts; so it should be easier to get their agreement that the statements are true.

Try to stay calm and objective. Be clear and concise; it is more difficult for the member of staff to disagree with your observations if they are specific. If the person's omission or mistake is carefully worded, you're more likely to get their agreement that it is true.

Any discussion should be well-structured, controlled and unemotional. Throughout, you need to be:

  • CLEAR: don't soften your comments to the point that they are muddled. This can lead to misunderstanding.
  • RECEPTIVE: listen to what the other has to say.
  • DIRECT (without being rude): "the last piece of work wasn't of the usual standard, what happened?" Not "this is crap!"
  • SPECIFIC: "The report is too long and some points are irrelevant" works better than "it's not good enough"
  • TIMELY: let the person know about the problem quickly so they don't continue doing the same.
  • HONEST: this speaks for itself

You can then move onto a discussion of the reasons. It's usually more fruitful to ask "Is there any particular reason for your absence?" or "What are the reasons for your absence from meetings?" Asking "Why were you absent?" can be interpreted as a challenge.

At this point allow the member of staff to do all (or most) of the talking. Your role here is to listen and ask for clarification. The information gleaned can often be surprising or revealing. I have had such comments as: "My off-site classes finish at 3.00 p.m. and public transport is a problem. I can't get here on time". Other explanations have included sick members of family who needed caring for which meant there was less time available for paperwork. If you've been respectful of the person, they'll feel able to open up to you. Listen carefully, check information and ask for clarification. You need to decide which factors really are outside the control of the person and which they can do something about. For example, have they considered all forms of public transport as a means of getting from off-site classes back to school? Be prepared to be wrong or to change your opinion but don't allow the person to play you on this. You need to focus on the gap between actual and expected behaviour and ways to reduce this gap. You can then move from talking about the past to talking about the future.

Try to get the person's commitment to making improvements. The issue is closing the gap between expected and actual behaviour, not about changing the person entirely. Discuss and agree solutions. You can ask the member of staff to make suggestions for improvement. Be firm about the expected outcome whilst being understanding towards the person. Let the person know what the consequences will be if the standards are not met. Reassure the person that you want them to succeed and let them know if a note is placed in their personal file.

If you decide that there are extenuating circumstances and the member of staff can be absent from a meeting (or excused from any other duties), let them know that it is exceptional and not a regular occurrence. The rest of your staff also need to be aware that this person is excused exceptionally so that resentment doesn't build up and so that they don't think they can be absent too. Be tactful and delicate when announcing this; try not to reveal information about a person's private life. A simple "Mark is excused from this month's meeting" will suffice to let others know that the absence is authorised.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

Set a review date during the interview and stick to it. If you offered help, you need to follow up on this. Monitor behaviour and note improvements, or lack of them. During the review, give feedback on your observations, both positive and negative. Encourage and praise improvements. If the problem behaviour continues, you can consider further steps. Check your school's procedures for this.

Finally, don't be afraid or nervous of handling such issues. This is one aspect of the role of management. Be confident and don't apologise for the discussion. Make any punishment fit the crime, don't be over-zealous in your desire for perfection! Be hard on the issues but fair on the person.

© Lucy Pollard 2005
Lucy Pollard has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer and Director of Studies for over 15 years. Her teaching experience is very varied: adults, English for specific purposes and English for academic purposes, as well as teenagers and young children. She has worked with multi-lingual classes in the UK and in various European countries. Lucy is available for teacher training and staff training in Western Europe, and further afield. Please contact lucy@tefl.net if you are interested.

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