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How to Handle a Grouchy Employee


The more you ignore bad behavior the worse it's going to get; here's how to talk to your employees before they become toxic.

Boy, the mood in a practice can change in a hurry when someone gets grouchy - and I don't mean a patient. I'm talking about staff. A grouchy employee can spread ill will like an epidemic and kill productivity, morale, and patient service. One thing is for sure, the more you ignore bad behavior the worse it's going to get! Talking to someone about a poor attitude isn't easy, but it can be done without rocking the boat.

The medical office is a team of people working together to accomplish the common goals of serving the patients' needs and helping the physicians and other staff in making this a smooth process. Whether it's managing patient flow, telephones, patient finances, or scheduling appointments, a grouchy employee can compromise these responsibilities. It's management's responsibility to address such behavioral issues before a situation gets out of hand. Here are some ways to stay on top of potential problems:

Be a keen observer. Watch the interaction of your employees as they begin their work day to ensure a cooperative spirit exists, and look for those typical signs that may mean trouble is brewing; such as one employee ignoring a co-worker, refusing to cooperate, or showing disrespect in actions or words. A grouchy employee might even be more obvious by exhibiting an unwillingness to contribute his fair share and by letting his own work slide. If an employee's behavior is impeding practice performance and patient service it's time to intervene.

Prepare to act - sooner rather than later. Objectively list the effects of the employee's actions - those things your observations reveal. It may be a subtle snub of a co-worker that results in bickering that patients and staff overhear, or it could develop into curt responses to patients when they are being served. It might even result in a standoff between employees that slows down important job tasks like getting patients checked in promptly or properly managing inbound phone calls. If it is a superior who seems to be taking it out on hardworking employees, you will have a team that feels powerless and morale will sink at a fast clip.

Intervene. Now that you have your objective findings and know what needs to be said, meet with your grouchy employee. Begin by engaging in a dialogue that allows the employee to relax and feel comfortable. You might start by letting her know that she is a valuable member of the team. Then ask her how things are going with her job and if there is anything going on she'd like to talk about. It may take a couple of probing questions to get her to open up. Be ready to listen and allow for free-flowing conversation. Hopefully, she will begin to share what is on her mind - it may be work-related or it may be personal. If not you'll need to bring it to her attention as objectively as possible. Then it is time to discuss how this is impacting the practice and help her understand why the behavior must change. If there is an underlying problem with another employee you will need to explore this as well. At the same time you must put parameters on your expectation for improvement.

Seek the solution. Discuss ways to resolve the problem and work through a solution that will bring immediate results - be specific. If this person remains defensive you will want to set up a follow-up meeting to discuss progress within a few days. The goal is improved behavior, but if your employee doesn't accept responsibility, the problem may not be resolved this easily. So be sure to explain what will happen if the behavior doesn't change or emerges again. Typically this is the point where a more formal disciplinary action occurs - a written warning and performance improvement plan, which sets the stage for permanent correction or eventual termination.

A grouchy employee is showing disrespect for the entire organization and if management allows it to continue then management is showing disrespect for both employees and patients. In essence, managers and physicians own their staff's behavior!

Judy Capko is a healthcare consultant and author of the popular books "Secrets of the Best Run Practices,"2nd edition, and "Take Back Time." Based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., she is a national speaker on healthcare topics. She can be reached at judy@capko.com.

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