How to Deal with Difficult Employees

By Robert Half August 1, 2018 at 1:30pm

I’ve found over the years that there are many facets of being a manager that are highly rewarding and enjoyable. But managing employees, particularly difficult employees, can at times be stressful, upsetting and even isolating. Dealing with tension when you walk into the office every day is downright draining.

Furthermore, the ripples created from just one challenging coworker can affect the morale, productivity and outlook of your entire team. One bad apple can indeed start to spoil the bunch.

There are various types of difficult employees — some more easily dealt with than others. Here are some commonly encountered issues:

  • The employee who doesn’t take direction
  • The employee who challenges every decision
  • The employee who is chronically late
  • The employee who doesn’t meet deadlines
  • The employee who spreads office gossip
  • The employee developing or spreading a toxic attitude

Regardless of the type of offense the worker is committing, the bottom line is that if you can’t rely on them to behave professionally and do what they’re supposed to do, it’s time to determine the underlying cause and confront the issue. Consider this action plan for how to deal with difficult employees:

Document instances of poor performance or problematic behavior

If you haven’t already done so, start documenting the employee’s mistakes or misdeeds. It’s important to capture each instance in writing as it happens for your own records, including the date and time. You will need to provide evidence of the poor performance, troublesome actions or bad habits as you work to resolve the issue with your employee.

Identify the performance gaps

Determine what you want and need from your employee to bridge the gap between their actions and the company’s expectations. This may require you to review the employee’s job description and any feedback shared in previous appraisals or performance reviews.

Review your company’s policies and procedures

It is essential to be familiar with your human resources policies and the guidelines provided to employees. If you have any questions related to the policies and procedures outlined, consult HR first to obtain clarification and advice. Your company’s policies and procedures will be the benchmark for guidance to your employee on the next steps that will be taken if the poor performance continues.

Get centered

Before you address a concern, make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. Dealing with a difficult employee can be tricky and stressful. While it’s important to remain professional, it’s normal for emotions to run high if you feel you’re being disrespected or taken advantage of. In addition, the nature of addressing an employee’s performance can make you question your judgment and management style.

From my own experience, I know how important it is to leave the frustration at work and not to carry it home. For a period, I found myself thinking about and evaluating the behavior of one particularly difficult employee long into the evening. I quickly realized that needed to stop. What I learned is that while you cannot control someone else’s behavior, you can control how you respond to it. Stay poised and keep perspective. If you don’t internalize things you’ll be able to discuss the matter more effectively.

Talk to the employee in private and listen intently

Don’t avoid the hard conversation, but make sure you’re prepared. You need to be transparent about how the issue is negatively impacting performance. Cite examples and give constructive feedback. But the discussion needs to be a two-way street. This is your opportunity to learn what may be causing the problem. Listen carefully to what your employee has to say. There may be legitimate issues — unintentionally unclear direction from you, pressing personal problems, bureaucratic constraints, lack of sufficient training or bullying from a fellow employee — that are at the root of the discord.

Discussing performance issues is often challenging for the manager and upsetting for the employee. If your employee becomes upset, give them time and space to process the conversation and schedule time to follow up.

Set clear expectations and put a plan in writing to resolve the issue

Don’t leave anything to chance. Explain what is required and detail expectations clearly and concisely with action items, concrete timelines and mechanisms for measuring progress. Also make sure the employee understands what the next steps are and the consequences of not improving or following through.

Offer support

As you assess your employee’s performance it’s also important to consider what support you may be able to provide. Research relevant training or professional development resources that could provide a platform to help them improve. Knowing how to deal with difficult employees means knowing what resources might help them turn the situation around.

Monitor progress and follow up

It’s critical to give your employee sufficient time to take corrective action. During that time, they should know they are accountable and that you will be monitoring their progress. What happens next will ultimately depend on your employee. In the interim, don’t allow the situation to derail your focus or drive. In the longer term, working through issues such as these enables you to further develop the team building skills you need to be an impactful leader.

Octavia Goredema is the founder and editor of Twenty Ten Talent, a career resource for talented young black women. Find her on Twitter at @OctaviaGoredema.

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