Dealing with a Difficult Employee? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage a large team of graphic artists for a popular online magazine. A few of my people are employees who do other tasks for the magazine, but most of my artists are independent contractors.

On the whole, they are professional and easy to work with—but a couple are simply a pain in my neck. They don’t take feedback, they try to re-negotiate the fee after we have signed the contract, and one routinely misses his deadline.

Of course I like to give the bulk of the work to the ones who are easy to work with. One of the difficult ones called me recently and challenged me on giving preferential treatment to a favored few. I was tongue tied and didn’t know what to say. I basically ended up stammering that I would pay more attention in the future. Am I being fair?

Feeling Unjust

Dear Unjust,

You are clearly a very nice person who worries about fairness. I am really trying to understand what it must be like to be you, and I am having a hard time—because I am not nice and I am pretty sure that nothing in life is fair. So bear with me, because I am going to give it to you straight here.

You are absolutely, 100 percent, no arguments about it, within your rights to choose who you want to work with. If all of these folks were full-time employees, you would have a different situation on your hands. If you were an evil genius who lived to negotiate professionals down on their fees by playing on their fears and making promises you didn’t intend to keep, you would be tempting karma.

But these folks are independent professionals—presumably adults—and you seem to be reasonable and kind. Your answer to the difficult person is this:

“I choose the best person for the job by considering style, professionalism, and how easy the person is to work with.”

Period. Full stop. That’s it.

It is not the place of anyone but your boss to challenge how you make your staffing choices. Your difficult artist is out of line and there is absolutely no reason for you to work with him ever again. If he were to ask for feedback, you could certainly give it to him—but to be honest, feedback is a gift and it is hard to give. So if he doesn’t ask, you don’t have to tell.

What I want for you, Feeling Unjust, is an entire group of artists who can get the job done on time, on budget, and with a relentless service orientation. Because you are the customer—and for most professionals, 100 percent of their income comes from customers.

You are probably going to feel like a big meanie, but you owe it to yourself to surround yourself with people who do high quality work and who are fun and easy to work with. You owe it to your company to choose the best people for the job. And you owe the people who do great work your gratitude, a good recommendation, and more work should it be available. You don’t owe anyone else anything at all.

Stand strong.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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