How To Deal With Difficult Employees: Best Practices

Most workplaces have people with a wide variety of skills and personality traits working together to achieve the goals of the company. Being a great leader requires the ability to adapt to the unique needs of everyone you work with and to create a positive and productive work environment. This article focuses on employees who create challenges in the workplace and discusses the best practices for managing those employees.


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What is a difficult employee?

A difficult employee is a term used to describe a person who acts in a careless, unprofessional or irresponsible manner in the workplace. Difficult employees may challenge the authority of their leaders, create a negative or disruptive work environment for their peers or struggle to meet personal performance expectations. It is important to understand that difficult employees often are not intentionally being difficult, but are instead responding to challenges in their personal or professional lives that are impacting their ability to perform or behave appropriately.

Related: Mitigating Employee Burnout: Action Items for Managers


How to manage difficult employees

Effective management strategies help leaders encourage and support all employees in overcoming challenges and contributing to the success of the organization. Use the following steps to help you manage difficult employees in an effective manner:


1. Acknowledge and identify the problem

When dealing with difficult employees, you must begin by acknowledging a problem exists and identifying what the problem is. Try to be as specific as possible when identifying the issues the employee is creating in the workplace. If there are several concerns about the employee’s behavior or work performance, make sure you identify each one. Document specific examples of each problem.


2. Find the positives

It is just as important to identify the positive characteristics and actions of a difficult employee as it is to identify the issues. Identifying several positive traits or accomplishments to discuss along with your concerns helps you minimize the risk of the meeting with the employee becoming confrontational and unproductive. Employees respond best to critical feedback when they feel their value is also being acknowledged.

Related: How to Motivate Your Employees


3. Ask for the employee’s feedback

It is also important to get the employee’s feedback about their performance, behavior and concerns. Schedule a private meeting with the employee and inform them of the reason for the meeting. Give them time to prepare for the meeting. Your primary goal for the meeting is to discover the root causes creating issues with the employee’s performance or behavior.

Begin the meeting by asking the employee if they are aware of how their performance or behavior is impacting the company. Then ask them if there are any concerns they have or if there is anything they want to discuss. Listen closely to what the employee has to say. Informing the employee that the goal of the discussion is to find solutions you can work on together helps you proactively diffuse confrontational situations.


4. Create an action plan and document it

Work with the employee to create an action plan to address concerns together. Make sure they know your expectations, the process for measuring progress and the consequences for failing to meet expectations or make improvements. Identify the specific actions they need to take to help them achieve their goals. Ask them if they need access to any tools or resources to help them make improvements and offer support where you can. Establish appropriate time frames for completing each portion of the action plan. Make sure you document everything in writing and provide the employee with a copy.


5. Follow up consistently

Give the employee sufficient time to implement corrective action, and monitor their progress during that time. Establish a schedule for check-ins with the employee to discuss their progress and provide additional feedback. If they are making improvements, it is important to recognize those improvements. If they are continuing to struggle, begin a new conversation to find the reasons they are struggling to progress and try to think of new solutions.

Related: How to Reduce Employee Turnover


Frequently asked questions about managing difficult employees

Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about managing difficult employees:


How do effective management strategies impact the performance and behavior of difficult employees?

Difficult employees often have the potential to be valuable contributors to an organization. The actions and behaviors of these employees also impact the culture and morale of the overall workplace. Understanding and implementing effective management strategies help difficult employees successfully:

  • Understand how their behavior or performance impacts the organization
  • Overcome personal or professional circumstances causing their behavior or performance issues
  • Build positive work relationships with their managers and colleagues
  • Make adjustments to their behavior that helps create a positive work environment
  • Improve their work performance and achieve their maximum potential


What are the characteristics of a difficult employee?

The following characteristics and behaviors may help you identify difficult employees in your workplace:

  • Attendance issues
  • Failure to meet expectations
  • Distracting others from their work
  • Lack of motivation, energy, enthusiasm or pride in their own work
  • Difficulty accepting accountability for their actions
  • Argumentative, rude, violent or disruptive behavior
  • Behavior that intimidates, threatens or humiliates others
  • Lack of respect or tolerance for the opinions, skills or talents of others
  • Difficulty building positive work relationships or working on a team
  • Taking part in workplace gossip
  • Ignoring established rules or procedures


What causes an employee to be difficult?

Behavior and work performance issues may be the result of an employee’s personal or professional circumstances, including but not limited to:

  • Professional relationships
  • Jealousy of the success of others
  • Issues within their home or family
  • Physical or mental health concerns
  • Stress resulting from a heavy workload
  • Poor work-life balance

Minimizing internal factors helps reduce the number of difficult employees within an organization. Providing leaders with the training, tools and resources they need to implement effective management strategies help them offer employees being impacted by external factors the support and encouragement they need to make adjustments and succeed.


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