B S Raghavan

Are there problem employees?

B. S. RAGHAVAN | Updated on March 09, 2018

One of the staples of any tome on management is a discourse on dealing with problem employees. It usually figures in a setting that includes organisational culture and behaviour on the one side and conflict management on the other.

Nowadays, any deviation by an employee from the norms of adjustment within a given organisational structure goes by the harsher and more judgmental description of ‘disruptive behaviour’ liable to throw the entire organisation out of gear.

Actually, I remember in the early years of recruitment to All-India and Central Services by India’s Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the interviewing panel used to include a professional expert on psychology or psychiatry. Nobody knew he was there, because he used to sit quietly watching the body language and modes of expression of the candidates, and apparently had a role in judging their temperamental and attitudinal suitability for top services of the country.

The fact that the interview panel consisted of a large number (12-15) of members drawn from diverse fields was itself taken to provide a guarantee against the selection of someone with a problematic personality. The assumption was that so many eminent appraisers, stretched across so many disciplines, and with so many years of experience, could be trusted to keep out the deviant.

In due course, the UPSC tagged on an additional feature to the customary interview in the form of a group discussion in which the candidates called for each day participated. They were seated in a room with facility for unobtrusive observation by the interview panel from the outside.

The idea was to test out the inter-personal skills and leadership traits from the stamp left by individual candidates on the discussion.


Whether as a result of these techniques or because of influence of peers after joining the various services, a measure of conformity with bureaucratic culture was generally brought about in the higher reaches of public service. In fact, ‘conduct unbecoming of a public servant’ was an omnibus item of charge-sheets in departmental proceedings against government officials.

Indira Gandhi, as the Prime Minister, adopted an additional safeguard against any subsequent ‘disruptive behaviour’ by having a detailed discussion with persons proposed for posts which she regarded to be sensitive and critically important. She was outwardly sweet and pleasant, but those facing her knew that they were under a searing scrutiny.

Organisations the world over have still not arrived at the right mix of methods to head off the entry of the wrong ‘uns (as the British would say) into their premises, and to weed out those not fitting into the scripted culture. Their inability in this respect stems from several conceptual ambiguities and operational hitches.

To start with, there is the question of putting a finger precisely on what constitutes unbecoming, unacceptable or disruptive behaviour by an employee, particularly in these days of consciousness and assertion of one’s rights to express an opinion, to dissent and to question any demand for blind obedience to authority.


An irascible or intolerant supervisor may take an employee standing up to his rights as a trouble-maker. Then, there are bosses who may consider as a thorn on their flesh anyone who is not a submissive yes-person, and may like their outfit to be rid of him.

Likewise, should someone be categorised as a problem employee simply because he has a habit of creating a scene during discussion, or is abusive, or lacks a sense of etiquette and protocol, and is generally seen as a bull in china shop? To make matters worse, (or better!), his aggressive behaviour may be the result of his being very competent and efficient in his work!

Invoking the opinion of a psychiatrist may not be the solution because both psychology and psychiatry have not yet reached any degree of precision or finality in their postulates and approaches, and can even be said to be speculative.

Indeed, Jody Foster, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, who is credited with expertise on disruptive behaviour in workplaces, admits that “… it is the kind of thing where you will know it when you see it. But telling you what it will be is hard.” It will be totally unfair to paint anyone as disruptive based on such a vague premise. So, I fall back on the old aphorism: There are no problem employees. There is only the problem Boss!

Published on May 09, 2013

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