I believe that most of the time, most people at work, do most of what they are supposed to do. They are cooperative, hardworking, and dependable. They take pride in their work, are punctual, and always conscious of quality. Some will even go beyond the call of duty and perform outside their realm of responsibilities. I call these quality folks low maintenance employees.

There are also those whom we label problem or high maintenance employees. Although a minority, they are known to cause significant, ongoing problems mainly because of their negative attitudes and inappropriate behaviors. This type of employee offers countless reasons why they are not able to get the job done. When asked to do something, many become argumentative, even defiant. They complain a lot, resist change, and point the finger at others when mistakes are made. This type of employee also spends much time badmouthing the company and bashing management.

High maintenance employees are the most difficult and challenging ones to deal with and largely contribute to a manager’s frustration and stress level. So the question is; how can we turn a high maintenance employee into a low maintenance one? It’s not that difficult, we just have to know how!

The first step is to find out and understand the reason(s) why some employees don’t do what they are supposed to do. Managers first need to focus their attention on identifying the reason(s) for such behaviors. Secondly, managers need to work with the employee to eliminate the reason(s). When the root of any problem is identified, then eliminated, the symptoms go away. This process takes time, patience, and the use of effective people management and interpersonal skills.

Let’s take a look at the following example….

Many years ago, I worked as a production supervisor at a manufacturing company. I was lucky to have such a good team, considering I inherited the department following the sudden resignation of my predecessor. Folks in my new department were, for the most part, doing a great job.

I say for the most part because there was 1 employee in particular, whom I quickly identified as having many high maintenance characteristics. This employee was seen as uncooperative, intimidating, and used a lot of profanities when speaking with others. My observations were that he had very little to bring to the department other than criticism and complaints, always without solutions. This employee had developed a reputation of being a “crap disturber” and to me, seemed to be a very unhappy person. This clearly affected the overall morale in the department and I quickly realized that I could not let this weak link continue affecting the rest of the crew.

I had only been at my job for 6 weeks or so and felt somewhat nervous about addressing this issue with the employee and bring to positive resolution but I felt it was my obligation to do so.

The following is a synopsis of what I did;

  • First, I requested the employee’s file from Human Resources, as well as engaging in a candid discussion with the H.R. Manager. My objective was to investigate as to discussions, warnings and/or progressive disciplinary actions, or any letters that may have been given and filed in the past. Any steps that may have been taken by my predecessor and Human Resources are crucial as they form part of the leverage I planned on using during my conversation with the employee.
  • In addition to my own observations, I also carefully and confidentially spoke to a couple of the low maintenance folks to get their take on this particular employee. You wouldn’t believe the amount of information I gathered from this exercise.
  • Once I felt I had enough information, I then requested a meeting with the employee in question. My objective was quite simple; I wanted this employee to become a low maintenance employee, a recognized and valued contributor to the success of the department, and stop being a “whining” pain in everybody’s backside. I first and foremost needed to find out “why” this employee behaved in such a caustic manner as I remembered learning early on, that once we focus on identifying and isolating the root of an ailment, and treating it, the symptoms go away.
  • Our discussion lasted nearly an hour and to my surprise, the employee was quite open about the issues that were troubling him. I realized that the only way he knew how to cope was by being difficult and belligerent.
  • The only way I could encourage open communication between us is by using effective communication strategies myself. I remained calm, cool, and collected throughout the meeting, even though at times it felt as if the conversation was going nowhere. On several occasions at the tail end of our meeting, the employee mentioned that the previous supervisor didn’t listen to anything he said, she never sat down with him to have a two-way conversation, and never treated him with respect like I had, but rather told him he had a crappy attitude and demanded an immediate change to his behavior, or else…
  • I used open-ended and probing questions to engage him in the discussion as I wanted, and needed to understand his point of view. I focused on listening in a balanced, non-prejudicial way. This helped me realize that his concerns turned out to be valid and together, we agreed at working towards a resolution. Improvements in his demeanour and work ethics began to change and improve. Within a short period of time, this employee was well on his way to becoming a low maintenance one.


As managers and supervisors, we have the right to expect quality performance and appropriate behaviors from our employees. We are empowered to not only communicate those expectations but also to correct unacceptable levels of performance and inappropriate behaviors in our departments. The key to being successful at it, is knowing how to do it!