The Best Way to Explain How You Managed a Problem Employee

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If you're a candidate applying for a supervisor position and you're asked to describe how you managed a problem employee, you'll need to demonstrate that you are able to manage all types of people. Anyone can manage a self-motivated, successful employee, but managers who bring out the best in struggling workers are highly valued for their ability to create more productivity for their company.

When answering this kind of question, you want to provide a specific example that emphasizes how your management style helped an employee perform better.

Tips for Answering

Prepare in advance. Prepare for this type of question by reflecting on some of your most challenging subordinates. Take the time to write your thoughts on paper. Identify two or three cases in which you dealt with a problem employee. Reflect on what the problem was, how you worked to solve the issue, and what the result was.

Use the STAR interview response technique. During the interview, use the STAR technique to answer the question. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.

  • Describe the situation: what was the specific issue the employee was having? Then explain your task: what was your goal? For example, were you trying to increase the employee’s productivity, or resolve a conflict between two employees?
  • Describe the action you took: did you have a one-on-one conversation with the employee? Did you create a plan of action?
  • Explain the result: How did your intervention bring about positive change? For example, maybe your criticism or advice resulted in an improved attitude or increased productivity.

    The STAR technique will help you provide enough detail and information for the interviewer, and will help you highlight your role in helping the employee achieve success.

    Be specific. Be detailed when explaining how you dealt with a problem employee. For example, you might describe a situation when you had to have multiple conversations with an employee, and saw incremental improvement in their performance. You should briefly explain all of these steps.

    This kind of specificity will help the interviewer understand the situation, and see the specific steps you took to solve the problem.

    Remain positive. Do not be insulting or negative when describing the employee. This will make you seem as if you are not empathetic or patient, or that you look down on your employees. One way to avoid sounding negative is to focus on the employee’s behavior rather than the employee himself. Also be sure to emphasize how you worked to solve the problem with the employee, which will make your answer more positive.

    It’s okay to mention an unmanageable employee. If you have any past experience with difficult employees who did not respond positively to your suggestions, describe how you outlined a reasonable plan for improvement, and then share how you dealt with their continued non-compliance. Typically, this involves collaborating with human resources and establishing a performance plan with a series of warnings if the employee does not improve. Remember, not everyone is adaptable to change.

    Highlight your creative thinking. You might provide a story of a time when you coached an employee towards a shift to a job more suitable to their background, skill set, or personality. Managers who employ this strategy can often save their company from the financially and administratively taxing process involved with a firing. It's not your job to be a psychologist, but as a manager, you are in the position of having to deal with different personalities. If you are able to address the problem head-on and take action that demonstrates change, you will be respected for your choice not to sweep it under the table.

    Sample Answers

    • At my previous job, I had an employee who was consistently late competing tasks, which slowed down the entire department. I spoke to her in private, providing her with a warning, including a deadline for improvement. When I saw no improvement, I spoke to Jane again and let her know that I would be reporting her to human resources and gave her another deadline for improvement. This was the employee’s last and final deadline. Happily, after a three-week period, she was completing her tasks in a timely fashion. Not only was the problem solved, but her increased productivity helped the department complete projects ahead of schedule.
    • A year ago, I had an employee who struggled with the customer service component of his job. He consistently received low marks from customers for his ability to listen empathetically to their concerns. I had a one-on-one conversation with the employee, in which he and I looked over his customer evaluations. By looking at his negative evaluations, the employee was able to identify the problem on his own. I required him to attend a customer service re-training workshop, and I provided one-on-one feedback on his customer service calls for a week. After the conversation, retraining, and personal feedback, his customer evaluation scores improved greatly. He is now receiving regular high marks on his customer feedback forms.
    • I was the manager of an afterschool program for K-12 children, and I had a new employee who struggled from her first day. Her co-teachers said that she had low energy in the classroom, and seemed unhappy to be there. I sat down with her and our human resources representative. We had a conversation about how her first couple weeks had been, and she explained that she struggled to engage with her class of older students. After a long conversation, we realized she was much more interested in working with our younger students. We shifted her role to a position working in the afterschool class for kindergarten students, and she flourished. She received top marks from her students and co-teachers.