Interview Question: "How Did You Manage 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.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

Your interviewer wants to see your management style, and a look at how you handle difficult interpersonal situations. This question also reveals what you define as problematic behavior.

Ideally, you'll share an example where the employee displays a turnaround.

Discussing situations where the end result was the employee's termination does not necessarily put your skills on display. However, if you did have to terminate an employee, it's wise to run through the process, and how you (and Human Resources) determined it was the best course of action. 

How to Answer "How Did You Manage a Problem Employee?"

When answering this kind of question, aim to provide a specific example that emphasizes how your management style helped improve an employee's performance. In your response, show the steps you took, and how you approached the situation. This will help interviewers get a sense of your management style.

Examples of the Best Answers

At my previous job, I had an employee who was consistently late when competing tasks, which slowed down the entire department. I spoke to her in privateand provided 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 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.

Why It Works: This response shows how the candidate was able to successfully ramp up the pressure, making it clear to the employee that some behavior was unsuccessful. This answer also makes it clear that the candidate is willing to take serious steps—and involve other departments—as necessary.

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.

Why It Works: This answer points to a real success story—the turnaround is significant and so positive. The response also shows the candidate's style. Rather than yelling or shaming the employee, the candidate helped them see the problem on their own.

I was the manager of an after-school 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 of 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 after-school class for kindergarten students, and she flourished. She received top marks from her students and co-teachers.

Why It Works: Some managers would have gone straight to a warning, but this candidate shows a willingness to engage with employees and really understand their motivations. Showing a management style is part of a good response, as is having a positive outcome.

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

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. In your response, first describe the situation. (For example, an employee is chronically late.) Then, describe the action you took. (For example, giving the employee a formal warning and looping in HR.) Finally, explain the outcome.

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.

What Not to Say

Do not bad-mouth the employee. Don't get personal or complain about the problem employee (or behavior). Instead, clearly and professionally establish the problem.

Stay away from vague responses. The best answers to this question detail that situation and steps taken. Be specific! The STAR technique can help you formulate your response.

Avoid debatable problematic behavior. Some employee actions are clearly problematic, like being late or providing poor customer service. Other things may be more debatable. For instance, some companies value opinionated employees, while others might not. Make sure that you highlight problematic behavior that everyone agrees is an issue and cause for concern.

Possible Follow-up Questions

Key Takeaways

Use the STAR technique. This will help you give a clear and coherent response.

Show your work. Interviewers want to see a positive outcome, but they are also interested in understanding your approach. Sharing the steps you took will help make your management style clear.

Keep it positive. Be professional in your discussion of the situation rather than complaining or being negative about the employee.