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Dealing with difficult employees: A 5-step plan


As a business owner, manager or HR leader, you need to be an expert at dealing with difficult employees.

A difficult employee is not just a problem between one employee and another. If one person makes life difficult for the company, discontent can fester and become a major distraction. The air of dissent affects everyone and can cause a dramatic decrease in productivity and the departure of other employees.

If handled correctly, you have the power to diffuse the situation and return the team to productivity.

Unfortunately, dealing with difficult employees is an unavoidable part of the job, and it’s best to address the matter sooner rather than later.

Here’s a five-step plan that can help you diplomatically and effectively resolve these situations.

1. Don’t ignore the problem

Don’t expect the problem to resolve itself. Ignoring it will only worsen the situation. While few people enjoy confrontation, you can’t allow an employee to wreak havoc on your workplace.

Their bad attitude and actions can hurt the morale and culture of your organization. A healthy, productive culture is the key to keeping employees engaged and excited about their work.

If you’re perceived as ignoring a problem employee, others will take note. Some of your top employees, especially if they are taking on extra work to avoid interacting with that difficult employee, could leave.

That bad behavior can spill over to clients as well. If an employee is argumentative and rude to peers, then they very well could take the same approach with your customers.

Bottom line: there’s too much at stake to ignore the problem.

2. De-personalize the conversation

How you interact with the employee in question is critical to your success.

In your meeting, create a professional and comfortable environment where the employee feels welcome to share what they are experiencing.

Don’t go in making negative comments or accusations. The last thing you want to do in a difficult conversation is berate them with their wrongdoings and demand that they stop.

Your goal is a relaxed, free-flowing discussion. Demonstrate that you care but you’re also there to meet the goals of the organization.

Remember: it is a business conversation.

3. Don’t make assumptions

Don’t jump to conclusions. Have a seek-to-understand conversation. When you open a dialogue with the person, find out if they’re aware of their behavior and its impact on the team.

If not, tactfully offer specific examples illustrating why you found this meeting necessary. Succinctly and factually describe their behavior and the impact it has on the team.

There may be issues they have been reluctant to discuss. Determine if there may be external, personal factors influencing their actions. The employee’s personal life may be in turmoil, and they may not realize that it’s apparent at work.

If an employee needs assistance to get their personal life in order, provide them with any resources your company may have, such as an employee assistance program. However, don’t assume someone has an issue outside of work that’s contributing to their behavior. In that case, you may be cutting them slack when you shouldn’t be.

Instead, uncover the root cause of the individual’s actions and work to address the issues. Once you get down to the basic problems and what may be causing them, then you can work to resolve those issues.

4. Suggest improvements

Once you determine the problem, then the appropriate tools and resources can be brought to bear.

First, ask them to articulate what support they need to improve their behavior.

Remind the employee that a part of their job performance is measured by how well they contribute to the organization’s success. Any suggestions for improvement should be objective, measurable, realistic and helpful.

Typical solutions can include an employee assistance program, various training, executive coaching and other tools that might help the employee in areas where there may be gaps.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Tailor your approach to the needs of that employee that allows them the best chance for successfully reintegrating with the team.

5. Follow through

At this point, you’ve had the tough conversation, uncovered the underlying issues and implemented a tailored plan. Now you must step back and monitor the individual’s progress.

Establish measurable goals and time frame for completing them. How frequently you check on their progress should also be tailored to the process. The key is that all parties set and agree upon a concrete timeline.

If the undesirable behavior continues, consider disciplinary action. If human resources isn’t already involved, now would be the time to loop them in.

Depending on the situation, you could consider transferring the employee to a different team or business unit. However, a transfer isn’t something you want to make a habit of because that often doesn’t solve the underlying issue. In more extreme or persistent cases, termination of the employee may be the necessary course of action.

These are last-resort measures. The goal is for the employee in question to work through the problem to the satisfaction of all parties.

How does this process look in practice?

Let’s consider Bob, a manager. His brash, results-driven management style differs from the rest of the organization. There’s not a relating-to-others bone in his body.

Bob doesn’t understand why his team or other teams don’t work around the clock to complete their jobs to his specific standards. Many avoid him and don’t want to work with him. Morale and productivity are at all-time lows.

Bob’s bosses request a meeting to discuss declining team productivity. They ask Bob if he knows why team output has gone down.

Bob says that he and his team don’t see eye-to-eye. They are lazy, he says, and don’t have the drive to accomplish their workload in the given time frame, even if that means working nights and weekends to get it done. That leads Bob to lash out at his team for missing deadlines, and recently, his team’s work came to a grinding crawl.

Bob’s bosses remind him that one of the company’s core values is to offer employee’s a healthy work-life balance. And while additional discretionary effort is encouraged when necessary, working overtime shouldn’t be the norm.    

They thank Bob for his tenacity in pursuit of meeting deadlines but highlight that his team is now in jeopardy of missing a number of important milestones. Bob, they say, shouldn’t lose sight of long-term productivity and team cohesion in favor of short-term deadlines.

The leadership team asks Bob if he sees any solutions to the current situation. Bob says he will readjust deadlines and take a softer approach to interacting with his team. He recognizes that he’s damaged team morale, and suggests a quarterly team outing to begin to mend those relationships.

Bob’s bosses agree with these suggestions. They also sign him up for company-sponsored leadership and sensitivity courses.

They set a three-month timeline for Bob to turn around team productivity. At the end of the period, Bob’s colleagues and team members will provide feedback on his progress. And after that time, if morale and team output haven’t risen, then strict disciplinary actions will be implemented, as outlined by the leadership team.  

In this scenario, Bob understands that his actions were detrimental to the company, but he wasn’t shamed or humiliated for his behavior. Instead, the leadership team tactfully talked through the situation and implemented a measurable plan to correct the team’s course.

If you’re encountering a similar situation, these strategies should offer a path to confidently address difficult employees before the situation gets out of hand. The rest of your employees will thank – and respect – you for it.

Looking for more tips on how to handle employee-related issues in your office? Download our free e-book, A practical guide to managing difficult employees.