How to Handle a Problem Employee Who Does Not Respond to Coaching

Hint: Sometimes “marching to a different drummer” means they’re heading in the wrong direction.

We’ve talked about employees who won’t follow procedures before – whether they fail to follow your policy for requesting disability accommodations, refuse to participate in team activities, or always say no at the first sign that a teaspoon of extra effort might be required. But what about that experienced, theoretically-capable employee whose stubborn streak constantly gets in the way of the workflow?

We recently got the following question:

“Dear Paul,

I’m the office manager at a medical practice with eight employees, and we have one person on our team who, quite frankly, does everything in a “bass-ackwards” style whenever she isn’t enthusiastic about the task at hand…which is often. It’s been a problem for a while, and the doctor and I have both talked to her about it. But we recently hired a new staff member who is making her look shabbier and shabbier, just by being dependable, listening, completing tasks, following directions, and showing us what we’re missing out on!

Now, the first employee has been with us a while, and neither the doctor nor I want to fire her, but how do we motivate her to go beyond the bare minimum, do tasks our way, and keep herself as busy as our practice requires? We’re getting to the point where we ask the new employee to do extra tasks instead of her. What can we do that we haven’t already tried?”

First of all, let’s be clear about who has the issue here.

Does the problem lie with the employee or the office manager, because the employee is clearly in charge? She’s going to do things – only the things she chooses to do – when and in the order she chooses. And, as best I can tell, she’s willing to give you a chance to speak with her and express your concerns (how noble of her), but in the end… She’s what I would call “in integrity.” She’s consistent, she’s true to herself, and she’s running the show.

Click to download cedars free Hiring Guide

Here’s the root of your issue:

The phrase “neither the doctor nor I want to fire her” is revealing. You see, this proves that it’s not the employee who currently has a problem. She’s fine. She comes in every day, pays little to no heed to her job duties, picks and chooses what she wants to focus on, and saunters on home at the end of the day. This sounds fantastic to me! Too bad you guys can’t get with the program!

On the serious side, “how do I motivate?” is often code for, “how do I fix this employee,” or “how do I make them do what I think they should do?” In other words, you want to change something about them. While I contend that no one needs “fixing” or can be fixed by an external force, and have about the same thoughts about “change,” there is hope. For the manager and the doctor, that is.

I’m sure you see what I’m getting at. We can’t motivate people who aren’t, well, motivated. There’s a very limited extent to which people can be externally motivated at all, to do anything. I mean you can yell at someone until they do their job, or punish them for not doing it. Take things away, or threaten. But in the end, that seems like a lot more work than just moving next door and putting an arrow up for the patients. And this employee has already let you know she won’t respond to coaching, she won’t self-correct, and she will keep doing as she pleases.

Here’s one solution you could try: The office manager and the doctor should fire themselves, and open a practice next door. In this scenario, the problem employee gets to keep doing what she’s doing, and you guys get to not fire her. Win-win, right? Well, she wins again, anyway.

Click to download CEDR's free exit packet for employers.


Unfortunately, letting her go is the only way out of the cycle. The only issue you may have going forward, judging from her past behavior, is that she might ignore the fact that you fired her and actually show up to work on time the next day.

You’re welcome. Make efforts to hire better next time around.

Friendly Disclaimer: This article is general and is not a substitute for legal advice. And the fact that you need to fire this employee does NOT mean you should terminate without taking proper precautions, including checking for protected-class factors, having proper documentation in place, and knowing you are supported by legally-compliant medical policy and procedure manual that can’t be used against you.

Any questions? Doctors, dentists, and their office managers are welcome to call a CEDR Solution Center advisor at (866) 414-6056 – we’ll help you solve one issue for free!

Mar 12, 2014

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance based on applicable local, state and/or federal U.S. employment law that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

HR Experts

Get Started with the
Best HR Experts

Enter your email below to join the community of over 20,000 business professionals.

Related Reading
HR Base Camp Roundup – March 20th
HR Base Camp Roundup – March 20th

In this week's edition of the HR Base Camp roundup - Can you control what kinds of things your employees head up in your break room? We've all seen what happens when someone burns their popcorn or microwaves their fishy lunch for too long, but how far can employers go...

read more
Share This