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Problem Employees: Worth Saving? Author Talks ‘Managing the Unmanageable’

Anne Loehr is a nationally recognized management coach and author of the award-winning book, A Manager’s Guide to Coaching: Simple and Effective Ways to Get the Best of Your Employees. I recently spoke with Loehr about her new book, Managing the Unmanageable: How to Motivate Even the Most Unruly Employee, a collaboration with workplace communications expert Jezra Kaye. She discussed some key takeaways from the book, including how to identify when an employee is worth holding on to and when it’s time to walk away.

How do you define an “unmanageable employee”?
We call an unmanageable employee (UE) an employee who exhibits constant, repeated, unproductive behavior. Everyone has a bad day, a bad week, sometimes even a bad month, depending on what’s going on in their life. But we’re talking about someone who’s constantly, repeatedly – on a fairly long-term basis – unproductive. This book is about helping managers uncover what they need to put UEs back on track.

The majority of organizational challenges are because the goals, the roles, and the processes are not clear. So people will say, for example, “Gosh, Mary’s driving me crazy, do something about Mary.” And I’ll go in, and I’ll do some work and then I’ll say, “Well, you know what? It’s not actually Mary – it’s never Mary – it’s Mary’s behavior that’s not working, for one. Two, she’s doing this because she actually thinks it’s her job, and you think that’s your job, and that’s the problem there.”

Do you find this happening a lot more now, with the economy and people taking on bigger workloads now, or is that always how it’s been?
I think that’s always how it’s been. You’re right – we have a lot of downsizing, a lot of reorganizing. Also what’s contributing to this is you’ve got a lot more virtual teams. So you’ve kind of lost that face-to-face feeling, which I’m not saying is a bad thing at all, but it’s just harder to have those kind of conversations to say, “What’s going on?” and it’s harder for a manager to spot a challenging, unmanageable employee until maybe it’s too late.

What makes managing the unmanageable different from other management books?
My work in general is very practical. I call it the one third/two thirds rule: One third, I’ll explain the model and two thirds is practical examples, practical exercises, and practical tips that people can walk away with. In my opinion, a lot of books right now are academic theory. Who’s got the time to read that right now? One third of my book is about understanding the [five C] model (detailed below), and the rest is, “Here’s how you do it, here’s how you have that conversation, here are the questions to ask.” That type of thing.

Does an employee ever pass the point of no return?
One question I get asked on interviews a lot is, “Why not just fire someone? There are so many unemployed people out there, why not just hire someone else?” But there are a couple of reasons. The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) have done a study: to replace the average employee costs two and half times that employee’s salary. For someone who’s more specialized, it can be up to four times their salary. I don’t know of any company that can afford that right now.

The other thing is, you can bring someone off the street, but it’s not going to guarantee you’re going to find someone any better, especially if you haven’t done any of the internal organizational work to prevent you from hiring the same type of person. And you’re still going to have the onboarding costs even if you bring in someone new.

And sometimes it’s not worth it, to be honest; Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes organizations just grow so fast, they change so much, and sometimes a person who was good fit two years ago isn’t a fit anymore, and it’s through nobody’s fault. However, if you can hold on for five more months, and practice some of the things in this book, you might be pleasantly surprised, [and your UE] is going to be thrilled that someone is helping him or her grow, and you’re going to save a bundle of money.

Managing the Unmanageable: The Five-C Framework
When asked to contribute some tips managers can use to manage UEs, Loehr provided the following Five-C Framework, which she discusses further throughout Managing the Unmanageable. “Once people understand this framework and model, it will help them with not only the unmanageable side, but it will also help them help people get better,” Loehr says.

Commit or Quit: “What that means is, “Look, you’ve got to commit or quit.’ This step is about figuring out, monetarily – as well as with the soft tangibles – if it’s worth six months (which is usually how long it takes to salvage a UE) to spend on this person,” Loehr says.  Those intangibles to which Loehr refers are costs associated with decreased morale and lost productivity.

Communicate: Many managers try hard to avoid this step, “a frank and open conversation with the person who’s been making their life hell,” according to Loehr. Ongoing, honest communication, however, is a necessary and beneficial step to understanding the source of the problem and then overcoming it.

Clarify Goals and Roles: “The majority of organizational challenges are because the goals, the roles, and the processes are not clear,” Loehr says.  Oftentimes, employees aren’t consciously trying to be difficult; they are simply unclear on their roles and expectations. Making the effort to clarify these elements will eliminate a lot of challenges before they begin.

Coach: While the first two steps will help most UEs correct their own problems, some may still need a little help. This is where the manager comes in to assist the UE as he or she examines the attitude or mindset that is giving rise to the problem.

Create Accountability: In order to ensure UEs don’t revert to old habits, it is imperative to create a process that will help them maintain – and build on – the progress they’ve made up to this point.

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
steve @ benefit statements
steve @ benefit statements

It's a difficult decision to make, and alot rides on the first C - 'commit or quit'. A six month investment (or gamble) on bringing back a difficult and disengaged employee might make less sense than training up a new employee to a similar level.

As Alison alluded to, the costs of keeping a low performing employee around isn't always accounted for - think about that workers impact on other employees morale and engagement, the resources that have to be set aside for them that could have been used in a more even, fair way for a number of other employees.

Alison Green / Ask a Manager
Alison Green / Ask a Manager

Sure, there are costs to replacing an employee with someone new, but have you thought about the costs of keeping a low performer around? The impact of having a high performer in that role is enormous -- and I'm not talking about small gains; I'm talking about massive, significant gains. In my experience, high performers outperform lower performers by factors of five or higher. In other words, one high performer can have the same impact as five or more lower performers. It's crazy not to move out people who aren't doing well (after trying coaching, feedback, and warnings) and replace them with someone who will.


I have to laugh..I was a productive person who listened to another worker complain the whole time I worked at this company. She would complain all day long and disappear to the bathroom to talk on her cell phone. My manager kept asking me where this employee was. I hated the fact that I had to listen to the complaining and then the manager expected me to be her babysitter. She was hired 5 years after me, but when it came time for cuts...they cut me...I don't think managers nor companies really know their workers. I think it is how much you suck up because she was always cooking meals for the manager and bringing him presents. I went to work and tried to be pleasant and productive...comments?

TJ Haygood, CPC, CTS
TJ Haygood, CPC, CTS

Great article. The Five-C Framework is on point with the information we share during our coaching sessions and career development training classes. I will recommend this article in our upcoming newsletter and order the book for our professional library.


Patricia O
Patricia O


I sure hope you ended up with a better fit! Sometimes the job doesn't work out because there's another, better job out there for YOU. I'd never want to work somewhere where I have to do non-work tasks to stay in my boss's good graces.


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