5 Steps To Take When A Great Employee Has A Bad Habit

About fifteen years ago, I owned a company with a small telemarketing division.  Of the four or so employees we had in that division, Bill was far and away the superstar.  He scheduled more appointments than anyone else, and he did it effortlessly, with no complaints.  He was the standout in that division, but there was one problem.  Bill didn’t shower.  Like ever.  He had a horrible body and clothing odor problem.  I didn’t realize how bad the problem was until I was approached by some of Bill’s coworkers and I checked it out for myself.  Sure enough, Bill’s odor made the work environment exceedingly unpleasant, and I had to find a way to deal with.

Here’s the good news:  I followed the strategies that I’m about to share with you, and completely resolved the problem.  Bill was clean as a whistle, and his coworkers were much happier.  Here’s how we got there:

1. Clarify the story in your mind.  Specifically identify the bad habit and identify the consequences of that habit.  It’s important to make sure that the trait that’s driving folks in the office crazy is, in fact, a habit, and not just a personality trait, part of your employee’s identity.  Habits are relatively easy to break … identities, not so much.  Keeping the consequences of your employee’s habit front and center forces you to deal with the issue (because you have a problem to solve) and helps you focus on what you hope to achieve in confronting the employee.  Once you’ve clarified the habit and its consequences, you’re ready to more forward.

2. Ensure confidentiality.  Whether it’s the employee whose habit is causing problems in the workplace, or whether it’s the staff member who brought the matter to your attention, it’s essential to keep personnel matters private.  You want your employees to feel like they can approach you with problems, and you want them to understand that if you’re forced to address problems with them, that their habits or shortcomings won’t be broadcast for everyone in the office.  Be discreet.

3. Don’t confuse the symptom with the disease.  What’s important here is to get to the root of the problem.  My telemarketer, Bill’s, problem was that he had terrible body odor.  The cause of that problem stunned me.  It turned out that Bill was living in a shelter.  I had no idea.  Because he typically worked 9-5, he couldn’t get into the crowded bathroom he shared with other shelter residents, so he was forced to cheese between getting to work on time or taking a shower.  The cause of Bill’s odor was his lack of access to a shower.  We changed his office hours to 12-8, and never had a problem again.   Easy solution to a difficult problem.

4. Pat on the back, kick in the ass, pat on the back.  This describes the approach you should take when you raise the issue with your employee with bad habits.  Start the meeting by taking the time to praise your employee and his or her importance to the company.  Then address the problem, while acknowledging that it may be a difficult, uncomfortable discussion.  Follow up by restating that the problem is minor, given the employee’s importance to the company, but that it must be resolved because they’re so valuable.

5. Make the connection between cues and routines.  Some habits are hard to break – harder than Bill’s problem.  Charles Duhigg’s book, Power of Habit, explains that habits actually have three parts – the cue, the routine, and the reward.  Disrupting this relationship can help when your employee is struggling to change.  Say one of your customer service reps is a stress smoker.  The routine is that a difficult client results in a relaxing smoke break (and temporarily decreased productivity.)  You have several options.  You could shift the employee to another area, one free of customer contact, or you could make the smoking area less relaxing, removing the positive reinforcement the employee currently gets.  The key is to break the routine.

At the end of the day, bad habits can be overcome.  It may be a frustrating and time-consuming endeavor, but it’s possible, especially for those great employees who are far too valuable to lose.


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