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Navigating workplace challenges: from difficult employees to discrimination

December 13, 2023
Confused young male businessman sits in the office front of a laptop and looks thoughtfully at the screen

If you often leave work feeling frustrated or upset, you’re not alone. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report, 44% of surveyed employees stated they experienced "a lot of stress" the previous day.1

Numerous workplace challenges can contribute to stress and make you dread going to work. For example, you might feel excluded by your coworkers or burned out by too many responsibilities. You could also face tricky ethical situations, not know how to resolve conflict or deal with an employee's problematic behavior. Fortunately, there are many strategies to navigate challenges and contribute to a healthier work environment and positive company culture. If you're in a position of management, you have all the more opportunities to turn bad behavior around.

Read on to get some helpful tips for spotting and dealing with difficult behavior in the workplace.

Communication skills for dealing with difficult employees 

It's completely acceptable to keep your personal life private at work and to not become best friends with all your coworkers, but you should have a friendly working relationship with the other employees at your organization. However, some people have difficult personalities that make it challenging to interact with them regularly. Here are a few specific examples of difficult behavior you may witness or experience at some point in your career:2 

  • Bullying 
  • Discrimination 
  • Silent treatment 
  • Hiding information 
  • Spreading rumors 
  • Negative attitude

Effective conflict resolution and communication skills can help you address problematic behavior and navigate challenging interactions. For example, if you address conflict immediately you can attempt to prevent long-lasting resentment. You can also use active listening to understand your colleague’s perspective. Speaking in a neutral tone and using relaxed body language can also de-escalate conversations with a difficult employee.3 

Promoting bias awareness and harassment prevention

People often associate bullying with the schoolyard, but many adults experience similar harassment in the workplace. If you're a manager you may be too removed to notice instances of discrimination or red flags of harassment. However, you may notice signs that a colleague is getting bullied or facing discrimination by other team members, such as:4

  • Attendance issues
  • Crying
  • Depression
  • Difficulty focusing at work 
  • Excessive mistakes 
  • Missing deadlines 
  • Mood swings

Harassment prevention policies can decrease the likelihood of bullying. Managers should give employees an avenue to report harassment without punishment. They should also investigate complaints swiftly.5 Additionally, bias awareness training can help create a safer and more inclusive work environment.  

Conflict resolution and mediation 

According to a survey by The Myers-Briggs Company, 36% of employees deal with workplace conflict frequently with their top reported causes of disagreements including poor communication and lack of transparency.6 

Managers can use a variety of conflict resolution and mediation techniques to correct behaviors and help improve a toxic environment. Tactics to address problems in the workplace include:

  • Setting clear expectations for open and respectful communication 
  • Requiring active listening during mediation sessions
  • Asking everyone involved in an issue to propose a solution 
  • Talking through the pros and cons of each potential resolution 

Managing workplace stress and burnout 

The October 2022 Future Forum Pulse reports that 40% of employees feel burned out. This issue affects 49% of workers aged 18 to 29 years old. Executives also stated that they experience 40% more workplace stress and anxiety than they did the previous year.8

Symptoms of burnout include:9 

  • Fatigue 
  • Inability to cope with challenges
  • Indifference
  • Irritability 
  • Lack of emotional energy
  • Reduced morale 

Organizations can alleviate and prevent burnout on a structural level by developing work-life balance plans and offering flexible work schedules. Individually, they can provide coaching, support groups and mindfulness training.9 The human resources team at your organization can also offer an employee assistance program that offers counseling and other services.

Promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace 

Managers can help combat workplace discrimination by fostering diversity and inclusion. With support from the human resource's team, they should educate employees about microaggressions and take steps to correct harmful behavior.

Microaggressions are insensitive statements or unintentional discrimination based on an individual’s identity such as race, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. These actions can lead to a toxic workplace environment, negatively impact employees’ health and reduce job satisfaction.10 There are many methods for battling discrimination and promoting an inclusive environment–learn these strategies on our diversity blog.

Engaging in ethical decision-making and legal compliance 

In 2020, 90% of workers said they would report unethical behavior if they noticed it in the future. But a 2022 Gallup analysis found that only 40% of employees with knowledge of unethical actions report it.11 Ethical dilemmas of varying intensity can occur frequently in the workplace. For example, an employee may question a leader's use of authority or company funds for a specific cause, or someone could accuse a workplace of employment discrimination.

To encourage employees to make ethically-sound decisions, you can:11

  • Explain how ethical considerations inform the decisions you make
  • Discuss your organization's ethical standards in daily conversations
  • Protect employees from retaliation for calling out unethical behavior
  • Create clear reporting procedures

Unlock the secrets of effective workplace management 

Dealing with difficult employee behavior can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a manager, but you can work on it building skills to improve at it when you enroll with Marquette University’s online Master in Management program. You’ll learn the latest techniques for handling workplace challenges by completing courses like Leading People and Change, Negotiations and Managing Behavior in Organizations. Additionally, you’ll join a diverse and inclusive community of leading faculty and peers.

Whether you're working in human resources and looking to advance and influence company policy, or, simply want to become a better manager of difficult employees, Marquette can help you succeed.

Apply now or speak with an admissions outreach advisor for more information.