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8 Ways to Deal with Difficult Employees in the Workplace

Date Published: May 12, 2022 | Last Updated:September 15, 2023 | By Linda Pophal
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Difficult employees are the bane of any supervisor or manager. Things would work wonderfully if all employees were exceptional, delivered projects on time and target, had great attitudes and got along well with superiors, colleagues, and customers.

Of course, that’s not the case. And, the truth is, we’ve probably all been considered “difficult” by a supervisor or manager at some point in our careers!

So, how can supervisors and managers be prepared to deal with difficult employees? Here we offer some practical tips and advice for finding the right balance between maintaining and strengthening the employee relationship and protecting the interests of your company.

View These Interactions as Opportunities

Even though few managers or supervisors would say they enjoy the prospect of dealing with difficult employees, it must be done. Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D., a cultural anthropologist and the author of six books, three on leadership, including her newly-released book Lifting People Up: the Power of Recognition, suggests that managers “view the bad situation as an opportunity to persevere on the people front.” This is an opportunity to excel at two-way communication; she says, “especially compassionate listening.” Set an example through your behavior, she recommends—and “do not emulate your difficult employee’s style.”

Seek to Understand

Jeff Mains, CEO of Champion Leadership Group, LLC, points out that employees generally want to succeed at their jobs. There may be barriers keeping them from doing so if they’re not. “Before you can try to address any harmful behavior, you must first identify the source of the issue,” he says. “For instance, they may be dealing with significant challenges in their personal lives that have impacted their performance at work. There might also be underlying workplace factors that you need to be aware of, such as poor conduct by some other staff or cultural concerns that have been fostering lousy behavior in the first place.”

Keep in mind Stephen Covey’s advice in his still-popular book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit Number 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

“Companies have to have an appropriate investigation into what happened,” says Damien H. Weinstein, an employment and business attorney in New York City and New Jersey and a partner/founder with Weinstein + Klein. That may involve “interviewing witnesses, making sure victims are heard, and taking appropriate action,” he says.

Listen to Understand

While managers may tend to go into constructive feedback sessions with employees armed with their key messages and main points they want to make, a better approach—as Covey suggested long ago—is first to seek to understand.

Mains suggests: “Be receptive to the employee’s ideas and suggestions while speaking with them. While you concentrate on what they’re saying, pay attention to your body language and facial expression. Avoid making snap judgments, making assumptions, or making allegations.”

Don’t Go it Alone

If your organization is large enough to have an HR department, take advantage of the expertise, counsel, and coaching your HR colleagues can offer. Not only can they coach you through the process of reaching out to the employee, but they can help you make sure you’re following company protocol and processes and reacting consistently with other managers who have handled similar situations.

Make an Improvement Plan and Follow Up

Once managers have had a meeting with employees to discuss the issue and reach an agreement on next steps, it’s essential to make an improvement plan based on this conversation, says Matt Erhard, managing partner of Summit Search Group. This should outline your expectations for the employee’s behavior moving forward, how quickly you expect to see these improvements, and what the next steps will be if they don’t improve,” he says.

And then follow up. Don’t leave things to fester or assume that the employee will smoothly and appropriately change their behavior. In doing so, suggests Erhard: “Don’t’ only correct any ongoing issues, but also give positive reinforcement when you see improvements to let them know you acknowledge their effort and they’re on the right track.”

Document, Document, Document

“It is important to have a record of the employee’s behavior in their employee file,” says David Reischer, Esq., an employment attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. “An employee file should include performance reviews, disciplinary actions, and any other notes that justify ‘cause’ to terminate employment,” he says. That document, says Reischer, could become important if the information is needed to defend against a wrongful termination lawsuit. In addition, he suggests, “an employer may want to have the employee sign a release form that details that the reason for dismissal has been explained.”

“Document everything,” Weinstein agrees—“every misstep, mistake, late arrival, insubordination, etc.—document it.” This, he says, serves two main purposes. First, he says, “it’s a CYA in the event of a dismissal or other adverse action.” Second, “it’s a tool that can help the employee understand what is going wrong and how it can be fixed.”

Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) address both of these purposes, Weinstein says—they document the issues and provide a roadmap for improvement.

Follow a Consistent Policy and Practice

Sharon Dylan, co-founder and career coach at Management Help, LLC, shares her approach to deal with difficult employees.

She says, “we usually turn to the employee handbook for the penalties for low-level concerns.”  For instance: “chronic tardiness and absenteeism will be given a verbal warning first followed by a written memorandum after 30 days if there will be no improvement. If another 30 days have passed by and there is still no improvement, then termination will follow.”

Higher-level concerns—like alcohol abuse at work or creating a hostile environment—will prompt an employee intervention program. “The employee is given the Notice To Explain letter first so he can explain his case to his supervisor,” she says. Then a meeting is scheduled with the employee, the supervisor, the company’s legal advisor, and an HR representative. “This is where the employee is asked to explain what has happened more clearly and the reasons for the behavior,” Dylan says. The group determines the steps the company could take to help the employee improve, including “an ultimatum of change.” If a positive change is not seen, she says, “the employee will be suspended, followed by termination if no further improvement is observed.”

For highly sensitive matters and legal issues, Dylan says, an investigation team is formed, and once the investigation results are available, the next steps follow the procedure previously outlined.

However, some behaviors are simply too egregious for course correction or “another chance.”

Recognize—and Take Appropriate Action—When Enough is Enough

“If the employee’s behavior is creating an actively hostile work environment for other team members because of bullying, harassment, and similarly egregious behavior, termination should be on the table immediately once you have sufficient verification or proof that the behavior is happening as it was reported,” Erhard says.

Recognize that difficult employees, despite the angst they often create, represent an opportunity to correct their behavior and send a signal to others about what you and the company value, what you permit, and what you will not tolerate.

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