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Dealing with difficult staff issues

Staff performance can be significantly affected by a colleague's behaviour and practice managers need strong interpersonal skills to deal with such issues. Fiona Dalziel uses two examples to highlight how to approach difficult situations.

One-to-one meetings are a good idea to get to the bottom of a problem (Picture: iStock)
One-to-one meetings are a good idea to get to the bottom of a problem (Picture: iStock)

I have never forgotten my first real job.  I shared an office with a colleague called Eleanor. We both had busy jobs with frequent, tight deadlines so we had to work pretty steadily. But Eleanor talked all the time, distracted me from my work and affected my performance. I had no idea how to solve the problem and in the end, escaped by going on maternity leave.

Looking back, I understand that I did not have the interpersonal skills needed to address the issue with Eleanor and thought that nobody senior to me could or would sort the situation.

Staff performance can be significantly impacted by a colleague’s behaviour. The staff member may feel stuck in a difficult situation and unsure about how to raise it without sounding petty or critical of a friend. Managers may be unaware of the behaviour and, once aware, may feel unsure of how to deal with it. But this scenario will eventually impact on patient care and despite our hopes, will not just go away.

Let’s look at two common examples:

When staff fall out

I have two receptionists who work together until 6pm. They don’t have much in common but have been working effectively until lately. Now I am aware that they’ve stopped talking to each other and there’s a definite atmosphere. Do I need to say something? These tiffs usually blow over.

Your staff members don’t all need to be friends, but they do need to communicate. 'Not talking' raises lots of risk that important information will be passed to the wrong person, left as a note for someone in the morning, or not passed on at all. At worst, this could cause patient harm and could lead to a disciplinary situation.  

In addition, emotions may be running high. Action needs to be taken immediately to investigate and rectify the situation. The following points should be considered:

  • Talk to each member of staff privately. Keep an open mind, your assumptions about the situation may be wrong. At this stage, your job is to listen and gather information so that you can assess what is happening and its possible impact on individuals and patient care.
  • Take some time to reflect. Ideally, speak through what you have unearthed with another manager or GP.  
  • Decide on next steps. This is entirely dependent on the situation. Remember that frameworks like your disciplinary procedure are there to help structure an approach if you have discovered something serious or potentially serious. It is vital to remain calm, objective, fair, consistent and reasonable in your response. Further support and advice are available from organisations like the BMA and your defence organisation, who deal with this kind of situation frequently. Hopefully, the problem can be resolved by further private conversations with the individuals involved or possibly a facilitated conversation with them together.
  • Keep patient care in mind at all times. The purpose of resolving this is to protect patients and you may need to clarify that this behaviour is unacceptable because of its potential impact.
  • Review after a timescale. Tell your staff that you will speak to them again, agree a timescale and then stick to it.  Make it clear that, if problems continue, you need to know right away

A member of staff talks all the time

We are short of space and three staff now have to share an office. One of them is a very popular member of the team but she has frequent personal problems and seems to spend a lot of time discussing them with colleagues.  

Have an informal one-to-one with the chatty member of staff. If you don’t already do these regularly, you may be underestimating how useful these are. During your discussion the following are useful tips:

  • Acknowledge that you are aware that she has some issues. It is important to empathise with her situation and she will need reassurance that you are being supportive. 
  • Give examples of times you yourself have observed her talking and examples of the impact on colleagues you have noticed. This both illustrates the problem clearly to her and protects her colleagues from accusations of telling tales.
  • Re-emphasise that you wish to be supportive but need to find a solution.
  • Ask her what she thinks should happen next. You can now discuss the best time for the supportive conversations and consider alternative solutions. It may be that she needs some time off to sort an acute situation.
  • Keep a note of the conversation. If the problem continues, you will be able to refer back to it and consider whether you need to take a different approach.
  • Check with colleagues that the situation is improving. Their performance may have been affected by all the chatting – or they may be part of the problem.
  • If the problem persists, have another meeting to investigate the lack of improvement and consider your options, including changes to how she works, whether there is an issue such as a health issue and whether you need to take formal action.  
  • Keep a note of what is happening and stick to agreed timescales. A lack of consistency on your part will ensure that little changes. Again, outside advice may be useful at this stage.

As a young person new to the world of work, I felt unable to deal with a situation myself and believed nobody else would take action. As a manager, it is vital that staff know they can raise a problem, that they will be listened to, and that fair action will be taken in order to protect both individual staff and patient care.

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