Dealing with difficult employees

If you are in a managerial position and have staff members reporting to you, chances are at some stage during your career you are going to be dealing with difficult employees. Difficulties can manifest themselves in many ways, such as unproductive employees, those who aren’t capable of fulfilling their duties, people who are difficult to deal with and deliberately insubordinate, or who are either anti-social or don’t fit in from the company culture perspective. As a manager, it is your duty to deal with these issues quickly, before they spiral into a much bigger problem.

There are many reasons why difficult employees behave the way they do, but the most common are they simply don’t know any other way to behave, or it has worked for them in previous employment, or for previous managers. The success of the staff members working for you, and your ability to achieve business goals and targets, will be directly linked with how successful you are at dealing with difficult employees. By proactively addressing misconduct or substandard performance issues early and consistently, you can increase productivity, protect the company from a legal standpoint, and ensure your team remains united.

Like school teachers who spend more time dealing with naughty children or those struggling to cope with the workload, managers tend to spend time and energy dealing with the difficult employees that would be better spent with productive employees and their own workload. Studies suggest managers spend between 30-40% of their daily activities dealing with issues within their staff, time that could be far better spent on other tasks. So what can managers do to focus more of their efforts on benefitting the business, and less time on difficult employees?

1. Act quickly

As soon as you recognise a problem with an employee, it’s vital you defuse the situation immediately, if possible. It isn’t just going to disappear, no matter how much you wish it would. Delaying could have serious consequences for you and the business such as:

  • A decrease in morale and productivity
  • Other employees refusing to interact with the difficult employee
  • Loss of business if they’re interacting with customers or clients

However, you must make sure you take the time to think about the appropriate course of action. The last thing you want to do is rush in head first without knowing the facts or how best to deal with the situation. The problematic employee may have issues outside of the workplace that are influencing their behaviour, or be feeling stressed with the expectations of their role, rather than be deliberately trying to destabilise your team. So do your homework and act on facts, because rumours and gossip can be misleading.

2. Listen to your employees

It is important we don’t cloud our judgement or bury our head in the sand because of preconceived ideas we may have about an employee. As a manager, it is your job to get to the root of the issue, and that often means listening to the difficult employee and their colleagues. By fully understanding the situation you’re more likely to find a satisfactory solution, and improve the atmosphere within your team. When staff members feel as though they are being heard, you’re more likely to see positive behavioural changes. After all, the difficult employee may have legitimate grievances that you didn’t know about.

3. Provide clear, constructive feedback about their behaviour

One of the most difficult aspects of a manager’s job is to give critical performance or behavioural feedback to their staff. It can be uncomfortable, but poor managers neglect this part of their job far too often. You need to:

  • Plan your confrontation beforehand
  • Select a private place
  • Choose an appropriate time
  • Know what you are going to say
  • Give specific examples of inappropriate behaviour
  • Invite others such as HR staff or upper management if required
  • Stay calm

Good managers use these opportunities to break through the guard of their employees, while providing feedback to help them improve their behaviour or productivity without crushing their confidence.

4. Don’t make the issue personal

As has been mentioned, the problem with an employee may stem from a wide range of issues such as a conflict with another staff member, fear of failure, personal problems away from the work place, or motivational issues. Just because an employee is causing problems, it doesn’t mean they are deliberately intending to undermine you or create a poisonous work environment. If the problems are personal, provide assistance where you can such as time off, the use of company human resources, or aid in seeking professional help. It’s vital that your goal is to develop a solution to the inappropriate behaviour, and not attack the person. Often the best course of action is to encourage the employee to develop their own solution, that way they will feel ownership of the situation and will feel more responsibility to improve.

5. Keep records

From the moment you start experiencing destructive behaviour from an employee, start documenting what has been happening and the course of action you’re taking. Often managers treat substandard performance and misconduct as the same thing but they need to be treated very differently. Legally, this is vital, should the time come where you need to terminate someone’s employment. Often, managers are stuck with an employee simply because there is no record of their poor behaviour. Even if you think you can turn the situation around, and are hopeful of a positive outcome, it doesn’t always turn out that way. Keeping written records doesn’t necessarily mean you’re heading down the path of letting someone go, it just means you're being diligent, and in many instances the records are never needed.

6. Be consistent across all staff

Don’t play favourites, this will divide your staff and you’ll lose much of your authority. If you issue directives, ensure everyone is held equally accountable. You set the standards for your team, so make sure your own standards reflect the expectations you have for your staff. This includes what you say publicly about your staff. At no point should you be making derogatory comments about problem staff (source) to other members of your team. It’s unprofessional and will distort perceptions your staff will have of each other, and will weaken your position of authority.

7. Provide behavioural guidelines with consequences

Difficult employees will often continue to behave a certain way until they are presented with a negative consequence should they continue. If constructive feedback has not changed their behaviour, it’s time to issue official warnings, threaten demotions or the withdrawal of any chance of promotion, or for serious offences, the possibility of termination. To cover yourself legally, these should be delivered both verbally and in writing, with the consequences for failing to demonstrate improvements in behaviour clearly stated. More often than not the result will either be an employee with better behaviour, or they leave the organisation (Source).

8. Abide by company processes when termination is the only option

Speak with the HR department, or for small businesses, the CEO or owner. If termination is the only option at this point, you need to ensure you’ve done everything by the book before letting them go. You need to protect yourself and the company from potential wrongful dismissal claims.

9. Are you the problem?

You may think difficult employees can cause problems in the workplace, but nothing is more destructive than a difficult boss. If your staff members don’t respect you, trust you, or think you’re competent, then you are going to have serious problems motivating them to get the job done. Why would an employee help their boss reach business and departmental goals if they don’t respect you? Remember, your staff don’t have to like you, but they must respect you if you’re going to get satisfactory work performances from them. Yelling at your staff, taking credit for their work and failing to provide clear direction will result in insubordinate staff which could be the result of their bad behaviour in the first place.

Firing an employee, for most managers, is the hardest part of the job. No one wants to see someone they know, and have a relationship with, out of work. It’s human nature to want to avoid conflict, but ignoring a situation will only make it worse, and as a manager it’s your job to fix it.

The best result is always an agreed upon solution to the issue between yourself and the difficult employee, and a more harmonious work environment. However, sometimes there is no other course of action, so you have to do it yourself, and you have to do it right. By going through a clear and methodical process of trying to rectify poor behaviour from an employee, you can be comfortable in the knowledge you did everything you could to turn the situation around.

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