Recruiting & Staffing
Responding to Unreliable Employees
By: Dora Segall
Jul 27, 2020 • 10 min read

Responding to Unreliable Employees

Unreliable employees can be a real test for any supervisor. You might find it challenging to show the appropriate response when a staff member shows up late or slacks off on the job. Adding to the challenge, how you deal with one difficult employee sets the tone for your relations with others. This is done by demonstrating what workplace behavior you will and will not tolerate. What you allow will contribute to influencing your overall reputation as a boss. Read on for some tips on dealing with unreliable employees.

unreliable employees

Innocent until proven guilty

Everyone has bad days— sometimes even bad weeks or months. Before you go about firing or otherwise punishing an employee for unsatisfactory professional performance, see if there is more going on than meets the eye. Call in the employee for a meeting. Try to ask, without becoming too invasive, if they are dealing with anything in their personal life that might be affecting them at work. If there is something, such as a death in the family or a personal health problem, respond appropriately.

Be reasonable

Whether it be with time off, a shift in work duties, or a referral to resources beyond the workplace. Demanding a reasonable amount of work from an employee given their current circumstances will show that you are a respectable boss. This will show that you have both compassion and high expectations. You might also find that giving someone a day off when they need it the most improves their work performance once they are back on the job.

Be firm but fair

Once aware of an employee’s current circumstances, or lack thereof, take the appropriate course of action. If you learn that your employee has no evident reason for frequent absences or poor work performance, clearly lay out what they have done wrong. Tell them what you expect in the future instead. Issue a warning and explain the consequences should they make the same mistake later on. If something is going on, have them update you as needed. Still, you must be informed of any evolving circumstances that may affect your employee’s ability to do their job. Make sure not to fire an employee too soon or too late. Doing so may make you seem too harsh or too lenient to your staff. If an employee continues to cause problems after a first or second warning, it may be time to let them go.

When problems persist…

Unfortunately, people’s problems do not usually resolve themselves within a matter of days or even weeks. This is where accommodating an employee can get tricky. If someone’s poor work performance stems from an undisclosed disability, firing them is not only an ethical issue but punishable by law. If, on the other hand, an employee has been missing the mark due to something like a drinking problem, a lack of improvement after several weeks or after completion of a rehabilitation program is fairgrounds for a dismissal. The variety of circumstances that may compromise an employee’s ability to do their job is so vast. Therefore it is necessary to handle problematic employees on a case-by-case basis. Use your best judgment. When in doubt, consult someone from HR or another expert.

unreliable employees

Look to the source

Problems do not always originate where we expect them to. You might find yourself preoccupied by one employee who has repeatedly botched up an inventory check at the end of the day. But, perhaps they are doing so for lack of knowing better. Understandably, an employee two tiers subordinate to you might be reluctant to ask for help with a task they have been unsure of since orientation. Make sure you have proper training procedures in place from each staff member’s first day on the job. If you find that multiple people are incorrectly performing a duty due to lack of training, you will probably discover upon further investigation that a higher-up employee, in charge of orienting new hires, is actually to blame. Make sure to keep an eye on employee relations and how they might be affecting your staff’s work performance.

Turn inward

There is nothing worse than getting frustrated with an employee only to realize that their shortcomings are the result of your own error. Examine your workplace guidelines to see if they need to be improved. A good clue that you are doing something wrong is if multiple employees are making the same mistakes. For instance, if much of your staff is showing up late or taking afternoons off for appointments, you might benefit from changing the times at which shifts begin and end. Also, make sure you are setting the right example as a leader. If you come into work complaining each morning about all the tasks you are reluctant to start, it is unfair to expect your employees not to do the same thing. And on that note…

Create a stimulating work environment

It is not enough to establish straightforward and reasonable workplace procedures. People are less likely to perform a task well if they do not find it interesting. Obviously, the workplace is just that — a place to do work — and your employees should be expected to do their job regardless of whether they enjoy it or not. That being said, making your office, store, or restaurant a more inviting place to work will lift your employee’s spirits and improve their performance. Try livening up the workplace through decor and activities. Find a balance between an environment that is too bland and too busy, allowing staff to decorate their individual workspace with a few personal decorations or freshening up the interior of your building with new furniture or a fresh coat of paint.

Add Variety

Try adding variety to the workweek by adding regular and one-time events.  Maybe start playing staff-selected music each Friday or an after-work happy hour on Thursday. Allowing for more significant employee input on executive decisions, to the extent that doing so is possible, will also improve your staff’s work ethic. Your efforts will contribute to making them feel more valued as team members.


Handling difficult employees can be unpleasant and make or break your reputation as a supervisor. However, it is something that you will inevitably need to do. Make sure to look at the big picture when you hit bumps in the road with your staff. Taking both the specific situation and your own expectations into account will help you improve both your workplace and yourself.

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