At some point, you are going to encounter the reality of dealing with difficult employees and it’ll make you want to pull your hair out. However, don’t ignore the problem. You need to confront it head-on in order to remedy the situation.
The best managers rely on a deliberate approach, such as planning ahead and offering constructive feedback, when dealing with difficult employees. (We outline our tips on this further down.)
When you study the situation caused by the difficult employee and prepare yourself to talk with the difficult employee, ask yourself the following before making a move:
- What is the employee’s interaction like with his/her coworkers?
- Recently, what changes have you noticed in the employee’s attitude? (Like the past few days or weeks.)
- Has the employee’s workload or responsibility changed?
- Recently, did something happen in the employee’s personal life that could have lead to this? Such as divorce or separation, death in the family, etc.
- Does this employee have a history of bad behavior?
- Is is a problem with a single employee or the entire team?
Once you have all the answers to the questions above, and you are certain the problem is with one employee then it is time to handle the problem privately and respectfully. Do not fall in the trap of working around the problem or just waiting it out (like the employee quitting).
Use these tips when dealing with difficult employees:
Evaluate the situation.
Don’t rush into the situation without all the facts. Yes, you should handle the issue as soon as possible but you need a clear perspective so evaluate the situation first. For instance, observe the employee in various situations, like during their lunch break, when they arrive and leave, and so on. Look for stressful or toxic situations that may cause the poor behavior and also look at how other employees react to the difficult employee.
Observe the situation.
Like we said, don’t rush into the problem head-on. Be sure to fact check. Talk with employees who are on the same team or are friendly with the difficult employee. Gather all the necessary facts and don’t forget that sometimes, people just have a bad day or week. If an employee who is usually great to work with suddenly becomes difficult, it may be due to extenuating circumstances.
Develop a plan.
Based on everything you have observed and the information gathered, you need to determine if the employees needs coaching, counseling, training or discipline.
- Coaching focuses on modifying specific behavior(s).
- Counseling focuses on the larger problem behaviors, which can lead to coaching activities.
- Training focuses on supporting the employee’s skills development and can help fill knowledge gaps.
- Discipline focuses on immediate improvement with implications and will involve HR.
The time you spend mapping out which route to take can be crucial in setting a calm, open environment to frame the situation accordingly. Consider writing down talking points you want to mention and remember to stay calm.
Confront the problem.
Whatever you do, do not put this off. While it is unpleasant, it is a crucial part of a manager’s job. The problem will not fix itself, it will only get worse. Remember, you planned for the confrontation so make sure you follow through.
As a manager, you need to make sure the employee is aware of the problem(s) they cause in the workplace. Sometimes an employee may be blind to the negativity and that’s where you come in. So, as the manager, schedule a time to talk with the employee to make them aware of their behavior – awareness is the first step to dealing with difficult employees.
Focus on the behavior, not the person.
You shouldn’t tackle this problem as a “win” but rather finding a solution to the problem. You are not there to attack the person but instead, you need to focus on the negative behavior. You cannot assume that the employee is purposely causing the negativity, it may stem from personal problems, no motivation, fear, etc.
Remember to stay calm when conflicts pop up. There may be some difficult employees who do enjoy causing mayhem so do not let yourself fall into the trap. It is important not to lose your cool!
Do not stop paying attention to what is really on when dealing with difficult employees. The situation might feel hopeless, you might be irritated and you may have already made up your mind without doing any fact-checking. Stop. Don’t turn away from the problem and don’t become frustrated, the best managers are attentive when dealing with difficult employees.
A good manager knows they need to get to the heart of the matter and that includes seeing things from the difficult employee’s perspective. Know that sometimes listening is your superpower because sometimes people just need to be heard.
Look at the reasons behind the behavior.
Don’t just listen when dealing with difficult employees, really listen to what they are saying. Be sure to ask open-ended questions so you don’t just get one-word answers and don’t interrupt. When you need to respond, remain calm and start by summarizing what they just said, “So from what I understand, you are saying…” This way, the employee knows you have truly heard them. When you can figure out what the real problem, you are that much closer to finding a solution.
Develop the solution together.
Both you and the difficult employee should agree on the solution. Without a solution, the bad behavior will only continue. The employee should be aware of what is wrong with their behavior and how they can adjust their behavior accordingly.
Give clear feedback.
Don’t complain about the employee! Instead, provide genuine feedback on how they can improve. While it appears tough, it is what a good manager does. You don’t want the employee to be on the defensive and you want to give them specific details on how they can improve. Be crystal clear!
Follow-up as often as needed.
When dealing with minor problems, like an employee being consistently late to work, a simple chat can correct the problem. However, some issues may involve multiple meetings until a solution is found. Be patient, instant results are impossible when dealing with major problems. So offer continuous improvement instead of the quick answer.
Know when you’re near the end.
When dealing with difficult employees, you may find that you are not fully equipped to help the employee. For instance, he/she may have psychological problems that require professional help. It is important you know when to keep trying and when the employee needs specialized help. If your company has an employee assistance problem, refer to this or rely on community resources.
Know when you’ve reached the end.
When dealing with difficult employees, the goal is to find a solution both parties accept, one that resolves the bad behavior and betters the team. However, that isn’t always possible. When you’re at an impasse because the employee refuses to change their behavior, termination may be the only solution.
If there is a behavior you are not okay with, do not sometimes be okay with it. For example, if employees need to submit their hours by the end of the month at 4 PM but you flip-flop with being okay with it sometimes and sometimes you aren’t. If you have “less-good” employees, they won’t stick to the rule so set standards you will actually follow through with.
Document everything clearly.
Documenting everything is key for establishing whether goals were met, when problems started and what happened along the way. If you do not have a record of an employee’s behavior, you don’t have “rights” to let the employee go. HR will need proof if termination is imminent. A good manager knows that documenting everything is key to solving problems, just because you write things down doesn’t mean you are acting negative, you are being proactive.
When you use these tips for dealing with difficult employees, you can rest assured that everything within your power was done in the toughest of situations.