Dealing with Problem Employees


An appropriate response can keep a personnel issue in check.

If this were a perfect world, made up of perfect people, everyone would do their jobs happily and efficiently. No one would ever show up late, waste time, slack off, or sleep on the job.

But this isn’t a perfect world filled with perfect people, as you may have noticed. If you’ve been in business as a landscape contractor for any length of time, you’ve hired a number of people to work for you — some good, some not so good.

Dealing with the less-than-stellar employees on your staff is never fun. But there may be some ways to make it less painful for everyone involved — you, your other employees and the employee causing you problems. There may even be a way to turn a bad worker into a good one.

As president and CEO of Grunder Landscaping Co., and Marty Grunder Inc., a green industry consulting firm based in Miamisburg, Ohio, Marty Grunder has seen the problem-employee conundrum from both sides. “The most common issues with green industry employees usually involve them not doing what they’re supposed to,” he says. “It could be tardiness, incomplete work, a safety issue or a customer-service issue — a multitude of things.”

Jorge Donapetry is human resources manager at Stay Green, Valencia, California, a large operation with 360 employees. “We tell people at our new hire orientation that if it’s a small thing, like you have your hat on backwards, we’re going to talk to you first.”

“But if it happens again, you’ll get a written warning, after that, a suspension, and finally, if you keep breaking the rule, we’ll terminate you.” Something more serious, such as stealing equipment, or a safety infraction such as zip-tying a throttle down on a mower, would result in immediate termination.

Mostly, Grunder says, what’s needed are good, solid crew leaders who know how to manage people. At times, that’s easier said than done. Crew leaders usually start out as crew members. But a great crew member may not necessarily be a great leader.

Very often, inexperienced or new supervisors may be loath to confront fellow employees because they want to be everyone’s pal. They need to learn how to be approachable, but still be the boss.

“That’s the hardest part,” says Grunder, “teaching team leaders how to lead and manage. Because many of them haven’t done that before.”

Simon Durocher is a production supervisor in the landscape maintenance department of David J. Frank Landscape Contracting Inc. in Milwaukee. Having led and managed landscape workers for 17 years, he says, “A lot of little things that are kind of in the gray area — like someone mumbling something under his breath as he walks away — you let that incident fly, and another one, but then these little things can start to snowball until they really do become a big issue.”

When he was younger, he says it was much more difficult for him to pick up on those subtle things. But now that he’s older and has many years of supervisory experience under his belt, he realizes he has to handle a problem with a worker as soon as it arises.

Most of all, says Grunder, employees need a map — and the more inexperienced they are, the more detailed the map needs to be. “If people aren’t doing what you want and need them to do, ask yourself if you’ve trained them well enough. Nine times out of 10, the reason the employee didn’t perform well was that you didn’t train him properly.”

Be specific

Of course, not every employee problem has to do with lack of training. A lot of it stems from the person’s attitude toward work.

When it’s necessary to talk to an employee about his behavior, the language you choose is very important. “I’ll often get a call from a contractor who says, ‘I have this employee with a bad attitude and I’m sick of it,’” says green industry business consultant Jean Seawright. “‘I’m going to document him and get rid of him.’”

“But just telling someone ‘you have a bad attitude’ is too subjective. What does that mean? You need to describe exactly what it is they’re doing, or not doing, that makes you think that.”

Describe precisely what has occurred, and what will happen if the behavior doesn’t change. “A lot of times, a management person’s intent to help someone correct his behavior really just starts him down the path to termination,” Seawright says, “because he hasn’t learned how to effectively coach people and help them understand what they’ve done wrong. It’s kind of an art. If you can’t get an employee to agree that there’s a problem, he’s less likely to solve it.”

Durocher relates this story. “With this one employee, every week, there was something keeping him from coming in. It was, ‘My daughter is sick,’ or ‘my tires got slashed.’ These things on their own aren’t that big a deal, but red flags were really starting to wave.”

Before he called the worker in, he made sure he’d done his homework. All of the man’s absences and his excuses for them were laid out in front of him. “I said, ‘I want to be the kind of manager you feel comfortable coming to if your child gets sick. I want to believe you, but with the frequency of your no-shows, it’s getting harder. I think you’re taking advantage of my good nature.’” He adds, “There wasn’t any yelling; that doesn’t solve anything, it just puts people on the defensive, and makes things worse. No one really wins.”

Durocher’s calm, fact-based yet empathetic approach paid off. “The employee didn’t try to argue back at all, and after that his attitude turned around.”

When there is a serious situation, like the time someone didn’t want to do something that his crew leader asked him to do and instead, “got in his face” and shoved him, he never deals with it right on the spot. “Just for my own personal sanity, I won’t deal with it until the next morning. I need time to calm down and think clearly about the situation.”

“A lot of times a problem with someone can be resolved by just talking to the employee,” says an operations manager at CurbSide Landscape and Irrigation, Savage, Minnesota, who did not want to be identified. “If it’s attendance or performance, it often stems from something that has nothing to do with them not being happy at work. It might be something at home that’s not going right. The labor pool that we’re hiring from typically lives paycheck to paycheck, and all the stress with money and family stuff can really show up at work.”

You might be able to head some problems off at the pass; after all, it’s better to avoid the flu than to treat it. Grunder prefers the preventative approach, using the mantra, “Hire slow, fire fast.”

“We do background checks and drug screens at our company,” he says. “We won’t hire just anyone. If someone has a felony conviction, he’s out. Or, if he doesn’t have a valid driver’s license, because then, we’d be relying on two people to get one person to work in the morning.”

Have an employee handbook

Having written-down policies that everyone can refer to is essential, says Seawright. “We advise companies of all sizes, no matter how small, to have an employee handbook. There are certain policies that need to be spelled out, regardless of the number of employees you have. Sexual harassment is a good example.”

But, she cautions, be careful how you write this manual. Gone are the days of fancy tables that listed all of the possible infractions and all of the disciplinary actions that would result. She doesn’t recommend that any company spell out precisely what kinds of disciplinary action will be taken for whatever infraction occurs.

That’s because most companies operate under employment-at-will laws, which state that an employer has the right to terminate an employee at a moment’s notice, with or without cause.

“But, if you have a process in place that says, ‘I must issue you three warnings before you’re terminated,’ or, ‘if you engage in this infraction, you will be terminated,’ we’ve now eroded that right to terminate at will, because we’re locking ourselves into certain steps ahead of time.” Leave room in the policy for making judgments on a case-by-case basis.

Malingering millennials?

Many contractors complain about younger employees, saying they’re not like the entry-level applicants they used to get in years past. Every generation has its work ethic questioned by members of the previous ones. Currently, it’s the millennials’ turn.

“With the 20-somethings, we’re almost having to reparent them, in a way. It seems as if their parents never sat them down and told them the requirements of having and keeping a job,” Durocher says,.

“These youngsters, they’re on their cell phones all the time, and they don’t know how to work,” said Rolland Kuhr, owner of Naturescape Designs, a full-service design/ build company in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “They’re not reliable, and they don’t want to be corrected. They’ll say, ‘If you’re going to criticize me, then I’m just going to walk away right now.’” Seawright says the millennials indeed behave differently than older generations. “They need to talk about everything — their lives, their work, their relationships. But what they need most of all is someone to act as a ‘millennial mentor,’ to show them what it takes to succeed on the job.”

Older workers can have their own set of problems like a sense of entitlement. “It can be tricky dealing with the older guys,” says Durocher. “They’re more entrenched and secure in the company, and they do push back.”

Drugs, legal and otherwise

Drug and alcohol use on the job is a serious problem in a profession where sharp and powerful tools are being used, and vehicles are being driven. The topic itself warrants a whole article, but it is important to mention in the broader context of problem employees.

There are many resources for help in developing a drug and alcohol policy if you don’t already have one. With the opioid crisis, and the many states legalizing medical and recreational marijuana use, you can’t afford to be without one.

The National Association of Landscape Professionals, Fairfax, Virginia, offers its members sample drug-free workplace policies and guidance regarding testing protocols. Companies such as Working Partners of Canal Winchester, Ohio, also help set up drug-free workplaces for green industry employers.

Finally, problem employees may be caused by problem bosses. A hardline, do-as-I-say-and-don’t-question-it management style may work in the military, but not in the modern workplace. Seawright says, “Today, things are more collaborative and educational. We involve employees more in decision-making.”

There are solutions short of showing someone the door. If you need help in this area, get advice from NALP, your state landscape association, a trade association, a consultant or another contractor — one that’s been in business longer than you. With some good advice, today’s problem employee might even become tomorrow’s superstar.

Technology to tackle employee problems

Before GPS devices became commonplace, a contractor would send a crew off and trust that its members were at Ms. Wilson’s house trimming her roses, and not at a movie, or at home taking a nap. When employees know they’re being monitored, it tends to keep them from stopping at the 7-Eleven and other unauthorized places.

Many app-based check-in systems available today such as ExacTime, LaborSync, TSheets, Employee Time Clock, Timr and others use GPS tracking or “geofencing.”

These programs use smartphones to eliminate two problems: one, the problem of people and vehicles not being where they’re supposed to be; and two, the practice of “buddy clocking,” where one employee fraudulently clocks in for another.

Some of these apps will take an employee’s picture when he clocks in at a job site and record the exact time and location that picture was taken. Most employees today accept things like GPS tracking as part of today’s workplace.

“Ten years ago, people objected to it,” says Jean Seawright, a green industry business consultant. “But today, everyone understands, because we all have it on our phones. We rarely get questions from employees regarding that anymore.”

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at