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How to Deal With Difficult Employees: A Guide for Managers

Managers help their employees achieve company goals, provide assistance during projects and sometimes direct conflict resolution. The best managers know how to handle difficult employees and promote a peaceful working environment that establishes trust.

When problems arise in the workplace, managers need to understand how to deal with difficult employees and what to avoid.

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How to deal with difficult employees

Every workplace has the occasional difficult employee, whether it’s someone who always starts conflict, is insubordinate or just doesn’t listen. When conflicts arise, it’s important to know how to manage a difficult employee. Follow these steps to deal with difficult employees:

  1. Get more information
  2. Provide feedback
  3. Record negative behavior
  4. Provide consistent action
  5. Follow company policy
  6. Schedule a follow-up meeting
  7. Remain professional
  8. Keep a positive perspective
  9. Be willing to do hard things

1. Get more information

When you learn about an issue with an employee, investigate the claims, especially if you don’t witness the behavior yourself. Don’t assume that the information you hear is correct.

Talk to the person involved to get their perspective, and talk to other managers if necessary. If you don’t know this person well, make an effort to get to know them and establish trust before you get right to the point.

2. Provide feedback

Once you have the right information to make an informed decision, move ahead with a solution. Meet with the employee to discuss the situation and how they can improve their work experience. Give specific examples to support what you’re saying. For example, you might remind the employee of the disruptive argument they started in the last team meeting.

Explain how problems in the workplace hinder workplace productivity, and relate it to the specific behaviors of the employee. In the meeting example, you might point out that the meeting had to end early and the team didn’t complete all agenda points, which delayed the project.

3. Record negative behavior

It’s important to keep a record of issues that affect workplace productivity, whether they involve a particular employee or several. Ignoring problematic situations only discredits others who experience the same issues.

Document the key points of the problem, so you can better handle the situation. You may not need the list of offenses if the issues get solved quickly, but if they escalate, having a record supports decisions regarding employee termination.

4. Provide consistent action

Set high standards for your team by living the example you preach and following through every time with disciplinary measures. If you fail to meet deadlines or implement consequences, your employees may take that as an excuse to become less efficient.

5. Follow company policy

Most small businesses have company policies regarding conflict and how to handle difficult situations. Refer to the official policy before taking action. This helps you navigate difficult situations and provides a recommended course of action. Plus, you’ll be able to refer to the employee handbook when discussing issues with your employees.

6. Schedule a follow-up meeting

After you’ve addressed the problem, make plans to follow up with the difficult employee by a certain date. Depending on the scale of the issue, you may choose to enforce specific consequences if certain behaviors don’t change or goals aren’t met within the designated period. For example, an employee may lose their eligibility for a promotion, receive a warning notice or get terminated if things don’t change.

7. Remain professional

As a manager, you have the responsibility to set a good example for others in the workplace. If your coworkers or employees try to involve you in critical conversations, step back from the situation and remain neutral.

Don’t engage in bad behavior. This will only make matters worse and cause your employees to distrust you. Their perception of you and any other people in management should be positive to encourage a safe environment.

8. Keep a positive perspective

Your perspective regarding all conflicts should remain grounded and neutral. If you allow negative thoughts about the person in question to stay in your mind, you won’t be able to navigate the issue in an unbiased way.

Consider both sides of any story and give difficult employees the chance to redeem bad behavior. Always focus on the behavior and not the person, and try to keep the interactions less personal and emotional to help remain neutral.

9. Be willing to do hard things

In dealing with difficult employees, you may have to fire someone eventually if they do something severe or they don’t improve based on the expectations you’ve set. Good managers have leadership qualities that set them apart from other employees, which involves making difficult decisions. Follow your company’s termination policies and consult with your HR department before initiating the termination process.

Things to avoid

There are some things you should avoid when dealing with difficult employees. Here are the main mistakes managers make that only complicate any issue:

Ignoring the problem

People often endure the bad behavior of their coworkers for weeks or months before getting the courage to report it. They may have already tried to solve the issue on their own and had no success. That’s why it’s important to address issues promptly. This helps your employees feel valued, respected and heard. Ignoring the problem only makes things worse.

Acting before getting the facts

When in doubt, always do some research before deciding how to handle an issue. Even if you’ve personally experienced the issue before, it helps to sit down with the offender to try and understand what’s going on and offer support. You might be able to resolve issues before they escalate.

Criticizing employees

Managers should never disrespect employees, especially around other people. Doing so only exacerbates the problem and causes others to doubt your conflict resolution abilities. Discourage criticism, and don’t engage in negative discussions.

Difficult employee FAQs

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding difficult employees:

If I need a witness during conflict resolution, whom should I ask?

Enlist the help of your company’s human resources department when you need another person in the room during disciplinary meetings. You’ll want to brief the HR representative on the situation before you all meet together to ensure that everyone understands the situation and how it needs to be addressed.

How do I ensure confidentiality?

When employees come to you in confidence, let them know that you’ll do everything possible to keep the information confidential, although you may need to consult with certain individuals if what they disclose involves sensitive information. Close your office door to avoid the chance of other people hearing and don’t tell others about the issue who don’t need to hear it.

What effects do difficult employees have on the workplace?

A difficult employee, especially one who is disruptive or insubordinate, can create a toxic or hostile work environment. They can make other employees uncomfortable, create conflict and lower morale. These things often decrease productivity and increase employee turnover. Figuring out how to deal with difficult employees quickly prevents these issues from happening.

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