How To : Handling A ‘Difficult’ Employee

Dealing with 'difficult' employees is just part and parcel of working a management role.

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With a management position, comes the task of dealing with difficult employees. Its not just part of the job- often times, IT IS the job. And if you want to be a great leader and manager, you’ll need to excel at working with these difficult people.

Behaviours often described as “difficult” by managers are: poor attitude, refusal to follow directions or complete assigned work, verbally aggressive or intimidating to others in the office, inability to correct performance issues over time, and so on.

Managers must know the difference between behaviours that warrant firing (harassment, threats, and violence) from “let’s work on this” issues (chronic lateness submitting the weekly report.) And while there are many types of difficult behaviours, the root cause is the same: someone is in the wrong type of role doing the wrong type of work.

Somebody who displays one or any combination of these traits will be a challenge for your management skills. When dealing with difficult employees, keep these three things in mind to come to a resolution quickly and easily:

Different employees are difficult for different reasons, but they all create an opportunity to build more self-awareness. What one manager finds challenging wouldn’t be an issue for another.

1. Know Why This Individual Is Difficult For You

The first step in dealing with any difficult employee is first determining why this particular individual is difficult for you. Ask yourself, and maybe said individual’s other colleagues what they’re doing specifically that they find challenging. Is it their tone of voice, behaviour in the office, or lack of change in some aspects? What feelings of frustration, anger, or anxiety does that behaviour trigger for you? Why?

2. Know The Rules

Next thing on the list is to know the rules. When you see a manager hesitating to take action, it’s often because they find themselves dealing with a grey area- they’re unclear on management rules and the employee’s rights and responsibilities. Difficult behaviours are not always necessarily illegal or against company policy. In fact, these more extreme issues can be easier to deal with because management’s required response is usually blatantly obvious and straightforward. Be able to sort your issue based on rock-solid knowledge of the rules. While its not typically enjoyable reading the rules and rights you need to, make sure you’re thoroughly knowledgeable of the guidance in the employee handbook and the major labor laws applicable to your industry.

3. Know Why The Employee’s ‘Issues’ Is A Problem For The Business

How are their actions (or inactions) hurting morale, productivity, or the bottom-line? What are they doing that poses a problem to their coworkers, staff, or customers? The more accurately you can pinpoint the issue, the better chance you have at finding a successful resolution. With clarity, you’ll be able help the employee see the issue and come up with a plan that addresses the exact problem.

Knowing these three things, the next step is to develop a “get well” plan and execute it.

However, before you get there, you need to understand and manage your fears. If you’re afraid of conflict, this is the perfect opportunity to get some coaching and work on that. If you’re not sure what the employee should do to remedy their problems, you need to prepare a plan in advance that aligns to their role and be ready to present that.

Develop A Plan for Change

How formal the plan is will depend on your organisation and whether this is the first or fifth time raising the issue with the employee. The plan is simple and should include a description of the behaviour with specific examples of when it happened. Why this behaviour is a problem and what the employee must do to correct the issue and by when. Share a copy with your human resources manager and incorporate their input.

Review The Employee

Schedule time to review the plan with the employee. In this meeting, you need to clearly set expectations. What they’re doing wrong, what you’d like to see them do instead, and how you envision this employee being successful in the future. You leave this conversation saying that you’re there to help them along the way.

Schedule Regular Check-Ins

Depending on the issue, these check-in meetings might be daily or weekly to start. Adjust based on how severe and impactful the issue is. Take out the plan and refer to it. Avoid the tendency to veer off track and introduce other issues while working through the current problem.

Fire Them If Necessary

Prepare to fire them, if needed. During the check-in meetings, you’ll get a sense of whether the employee is making progress and is able to turn things around. This happens–and it’s a great feeling. However, not everyone can make this kind of behavioural shift. In that case, you’ll need to fire them. Keep human resources updated throughout the process so they’re ready to support you if the situation comes to this.

As hard as it can be to work with and direct some people, these difficult employees actually do us a favour. That is to help sort us into two categories: those who thrive on the messy, often time-consuming role of achieving the organisation’s mission through people and those who’d rather focus on technical work. Most people not only prefer one role over the other they’re also just better at one. Dealing with difficult employees can be one way to figure this out for yourself.


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