Talent Management Column

Managing the 'Difficult' Employee

A new study finds that about one in five workers have a personality disorder that negatively impacts their career and the workplace. But while the research suggests that such disorders (particularly among women) can have a significant impact on business outcomes, HR leaders should nonetheless tread carefully as they craft a response.

Monday, June 20, 2011
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In every office and workgroup, it seems that there is at least one employee who seems to be at the center of most of the problems. 

We've all heard the anecdote that 20 percent of workers account for 80 percent of the supervisory concerns, and while it's hard to find hard evidence to support that figure, it persists because it seems to align with most everyone's experience. 

Even when the issues and context change, the difficult employee continues to be at the center of conflicts and problem.

Is it really the person who is the problem? A new study based on survey data from the U.S. Census and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that, yes, it probably is.

In "Does Having a Dysfunctional Personality Hurt Your Career," which was published this year in Industrial Relations journal, the researchers found that 18 percent of adult men and 16 percent of adult women have personality disorders. 

Such disorders are a form of mental illness defined as "pervasive patterns of enduring cognition and behavior" (i.e., how you think and act) that deviate from expectations in society and that cause difficulty and distress when dealing with others. 

Deviation from expectations means that they interpret memos in distorting ways, seeing conspiracies that don't exist; they interpret innocent comments as personal slights; and they refuse to accept simple changes in procedures. Personality disorders are less serious forms of mental illness than "clinical" illnesses such as bipolar disorder or depression, but they nevertheless cause real problems for the individuals and those around them. 

The study by Susan L. Ettner, Joanna Catherine MacLean and Michael T. French assessed these disorders in face-to-face interviews using standard diagnostic tests, although for a variety of reasons, the results probably understate the true incidents of these problems. 

The most common of the personality disorders is obsessive-compulsive behavior, followed by more general antisocial behavior and paranoia. For reasons that aren't clear, the incidence of personality disorder seemed to be substantially higher for those with more education and was twice as high for those living in the South as opposed to the Northeast.

In the context of the workplace, the rate at which those with personality disorders lost their jobs was roughly double that of those without disorders, while the incidence of having serious problems with bosses or other employees in the workplace was three times as high. 

When controlling for other factors associated with these disorders, the negative effects of the disorders themselves on labor-market outcomes and workplace issues were smaller but still significant statistically and meaningful in terms of their size. 

These disorders had a more negative effect on workplace outcomes for women than for men. Is that because we expect better social skills from women? That men cover up problems better? Or is it that the jobs at which women disproportionately work require more social interaction? Hard to say. 

One might imagine that individuals who are anti-social -- willing to lie, cheat and violate social norms -- would have the most problems. But it turns out that having obsessive-compulsive behavior is associated with the most negative workplace outcomes. 

Perhaps the anti-social people are more skilled at covering up their problems or at smoothing them over. It might also be that OCB is particularly disruptive in the modern office because change is constant and individuals rarely have control over how they do their work.

OK, so what do we do with this information? 

I suppose it is some comfort to supervisors to know that at least some of the difficulties they have with "problem" employees may be related to these disorders and that inadequate supervision is not the main reason for the conflicts and disruptions. 

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No doubt these findings will also be used to support the "War for Talent" notion that there are "A" players, who are just good performers no matter what, and "C" players, who are always causing problems, and that the goal is to sort them out before hiring. 

Before we draw that conclusion, though, it is worth remembering that no one chooses to have a personality disorder. Once they are diagnosed, personality disorders are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and other state-level legislation, and most of these disorders are treatable, some more easily than others. 

Screening applicants for medical conditions will also be a full employment plan for your legal department. 

In addition, many individuals with these disorders may be terrifically effective performers, especially in tasks where they work independently.

So, supervisors are likely to be on the hook for managing the one-in-five or so adults who have these personality disorders for the foreseeable future. 

What does that mean in practice? 

Maybe it means making new and different use of employee-assistance programs to help these individuals identify their problems and seek treatment. Maybe it means helping to redesign their tasks and jobs to find those that truly "fit" what they are capable of doing. 

And it still means holding them accountable for dealing with others in ways that meet the norms and expectations of your organization. Some part of that may ultimately mean meeting with your legal department to decide how much variation you can live with. 

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book, with Bill Novelli, is Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order.

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