The Pareto rule in HR - how to manage difficult employee behaviour

Most of us will have heard of the Pareto Rule when it comes to our business sales – that 80% of business comes from 20% of customers and therefore, looking after that 20% is of vital importance to the business’ success. As an experienced HR advisor, having worked in large organisations and as an HR consultant advising SME companies across the region, I find that a similar rule often applies to HR.

By Karen Credie, KMCHR.

80% of employee management time is spent on matters concerning only 20% of employees. I’m sure that many business owners would concur with this observation; the vast majority of employees cause little or no trouble and are punctual, diligent and hardworking. So how is it that so much disruption is caused by such a small percentage of employees and what can be done to ensure any undesirable behaviour is nipped in the bud?

The first thing to consider is whether the employees that are troublesome are otherwise good performers, or are there issues that go beyond everyday attitude into the quality of their work? These two categories of people will most likely need to be managed differently.

With the former, you ideally want to try to iron out the issues to get them back on track. Look at patterns of behaviour – has the issue always been present or is it something that has developed recently? If it’s something that has only come about of late, try to talk to the employee about why this is. It may be that a change in their personal circumstances is causing the problem, which it may be good for you to know about, or perhaps there are dynamics within the team that have caused the change. If it is their attitude towards work that has changed, try to think why this might be; perhaps they need a new challenge or a temporary change in direction to regain their engagement.

Inappropriate behaviour or poor performance should not be allowed to persist for long periods so, where a particular behaviour or lack of performance shows itself on an ad hoc but regular basis, it needs to be addressed. First and foremost, you should call a meeting with the employee to discuss the issue and explain what is and what is not acceptable. At the meeting, you can explain that you have noticed a few issues lately, why they are problematic and what you expect as minimum standards. This meeting should not be approached as a ‘telling off’, but rather you should treat employees as adults and encourage their input as appropriate.

If informal discussions do not result in improvement, a formal disciplinary meeting or capability procedures may be necessary. Ensure that you follow the guidelines as set out in your employee handbook regarding disciplinary or capability and seek advice from an HR professional if required.

Another consideration is the type of behaviour at hand as this will undoubtedly require differing approaches from managers. Time keeping, for example, is something that can often be rectified by following the above steps. If the issue is attitudinal, the above will help, but employee engagement may need addressing at a more fundamental level (see our blog on the Rules of Engagement). If the problem is to do with interaction between employees, perhaps excessive gossiping that is distracting employees from the work at hand, or bullying of other employees, further intervention will be required. Remember that bullying and harassment are serious issues in the workplace and since the introduction of the Equality Act, employers can be found vicariously liable if the matter is particularly serious and reaches the Employment Tribunal level.

Across all issues, clarity is extremely important – there can be no ambiguity in where you stand on matters such as punctuality, attitude towards work and treatment of others.

Timing is also key – whilst you may leave certain issue to work themselves out for a while, and this is a perfectly valid approach to take, negative behaviours will need to be pulled into line sooner rather than later, especially if they are starting to have a negative influence on other employees. Remember, how we deal with issues that are impacting on our workforce is a reflection of our management style. If we choose to ignore things and hope they will go away, this can demonstrate weak management. Going back to the start of this blog and the second category of employees identified, namely those who are less well performing in addition to behaviour issues, it is key to maintain perspective. Whilst you would ideally like to help these employees as much as you can, for some, no matter how much time you spend, the problems will continue to pervade. In these cases, you need to decide if these are people you are prepared to keep on, or whether they are ultimately not destined to work in your business.