Is Dealing with Difficult Staff Really That Difficult?

November 27, 2019


The front desk associate who arrives late. The events manager whose sharp tongue weakens employee morale. The kitchen manager who likes to gossip and sow discord. The maintenance manager who stretches simple tasks into hours-long projects.


In a business comprised of countless tasks and a variety of roles, there are many examples of difficult employee behaviour. The hotel manager has to balance mediation, motivation, and disciplinary action in order to root out these problems without perpetuating them – and as those of us with industry experience know, it’s easier said than done.


But let’s not make things more complex than they really are. My experience tells me that most often, if we step back from our difficult employee situations, the most effective fixes are remarkably simple.


Get involved early


For many hotel managers, it’s tempting to take a “wait and see” approach to problematic employee behaviour. We are, after all, a person-centred industry; the quality of the hotel product is closely linked (perhaps indistinguishable) to work culture and employee morale.  Overbearing and unreasonable managers don’t attract bright talent – much less retain it. There is an ever-increasing number of hotels that want to provide innovative experiences to guests and star talent alike, and if your hotel can’t do anything like that, there’s one down the street that can.


But the positive instinct to create a better work culture has the danger of creating a regressive effect, insofar as managers become overly-tolerant of legitimate problems. The best managers I’ve seen are adept at getting ahead of problematic behaviour before it develops into habit. That means compiling any necessary documentation and scheduling a meeting with the employee in question.


That meeting should be centred on documented performance issues, not hearsay. It should maintain a non-confrontational tone. We’re certainly not giving up on anybody at this stage; we’re opening a positive line of inquiry into what’s not working. We’re demonstrating transparency, a willingness to listen, and a desire to find solutions. We’re soliciting the employee’s feedback on how the problem could be resolved, not merely giving our own.


You might even be pleased with how the meeting goes. The problem was discussed openly, mutual understanding was increased, and it seems like smoother sailing from here on in.  But a good feeling will evaporate if it isn’t backed up by an action plan – one that includes clear expectations, manageable goals, and realistic timetables. This lets the employee know that from your point of view, the problem and the solution are quantifiable. As one of my HR mentors told me many years ago, if you do the right thing, and follow the right process (with agreed outcomes), eventually we don’t sack people, they sack themselves.


Strengthen policy and documentation


‘Workplace culture’ is a frequent talking point in the modern hotel business. Everybody knows how important it is, but the definition is notoriously hard to pin down. “The environment you create” and “the vibe of the organisation” or “how we do things around here” have to be rooted somewhere – hence the importance of policies and handbooks that are up-to-date, relevant, and reflective of the culture you want to develop.


It’s surprising how often managers find themselves dealing with problematic behaviours that aren’t guided by clear policy. Every employee challenge we deal with is a chance to revisit and strengthen the policies that underpin our work cultures.


The need for careful documentation is also underscored by liability concerns for employers who need to consider disciplinary action or termination for uncooperative employees. If problematic patterns of behaviour are not clearly documented, liability can make it difficult to do what’s best for the hotel and its other employees.


Conduct regular performance reviews


A 2017 survey by Hays Australia found that a full two-thirds of Australian managers want to throw out the traditional annual performance review in favour of a more regular (e.g. monthly) feedback schedule. The idea is that ongoing feedback is a better way to develop work culture and prevent performance problems becoming entrenched. This mindset also removes a well-known aspect of anxiety and formality around performance reviews. It also fits with the Millennial need for immediate feedback. Whatever the specifics, a dynamic feedback system is a perennial winner for motivating hotel employees and shaping a positive, responsible work culture.


Back to the basics


As a career hotel professional, I find great enjoyment in reading about the surge of innovation in the industry. Ours is one of the fastest-growing business sectors in the world, and the scramble for new ground has created some dazzling new concepts. But sometimes we can look too far afield for solutions to our problems. Where managing difficult employees is concerned, the solutions are often simpler than we think.  



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