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The thriving workplace: how to deal with difficult employees

August 04, 2022
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Managing difficult employees effectively is a critical challenge for leaders in any workplace. This comprehensive guide addresses the most pressing questions, such as dealing with undermining behavior, handling uncooperative employees, and strategies for those who don't respect authority. Focusing on practical solutions, this article explores how to identify and address the root causes of problematic behavior, offers tips for constructive feedback, and outlines steps for creating a positive, productive work environment. Our insights are geared towards helping managers navigate these complex situations, ensuring a thriving workplace.

Difficult employees pose a critical leadership challenge

One of the most perplexing questions that managers in leadership positions face is how to deal with difficult employees. An employee’s problematic behavior and poor attitude can spread quickly, negatively affecting their productivity and that of other members of your team. This can lead to serious repercussions for your entire business, creating a toxic environment that keeps you from satisfying customers and reaching your goals. Dealing with difficult employees is an enormous challenge, but you must do so immediately to minimize the damage.

In this article, we examine what is meant by the phrase ‘difficult employee,’ the connection between engagement and undesirable behavior and what you, as a manager, can do to handle difficult employees for a healthier, more productive work environment.

What is a difficult employee?

A difficult employee is most often thought of as someone who does not behave in a professional manner at their place of business.1 A toxic employee takes this one step further, in that their behavior is not just unpleasant to be around but can be harmful to your business—either the workplace itself or your team. In addition to hurting the organization’s performance, toxic employees could expose the company to potential lawsuits and legal fees.2

Three basic types of difficult employees are those who:

  • Are poor performers
  • Have a bad attitude
  • Undermine the supervisor’s authority 3

Poor Performance
There can be many reasons for this, such as a lack of motivation, poor communication or insufficient resources. They might not feel challenged or may lack the skills they need to perform well. They may feel frustrated by a lack of advancement opportunities. There might also be a personal problem that keeps them from focusing and being productive.3

Bad Attitude
A negative attitude, whether it’s passive or confrontational, creates a toxic environment internally and affects your whole team. Worse still, an employee’s bad attitude may spill over into their interactions with customers or vendors, which puts your company’s reputation at risk.3

Undermines Authority
When this occurs, it hurts worker productivity and morale. If an employee undermines your authority as a manager, other team members might also start to question your leadership role. However, the person might not intentionally be undermining you. They may believe in their own perspective so strongly that they do not realize how their communication style is being perceived. 3

This blog will cover how to deal with a difficult employee of any of these types.

The connection between engagement, dissatisfaction and difficult behavior

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, only 32% of full- and part-time employees are engaged, while 17% are “actively disengaged.” Engagement measures include productivity, profitability, retention, safety, customer service and employee wellbeing. Actively disengaged workers are dissatisfied and disloyal because they believe their workplace needs are not being met. 4

While a high level of employee engagement can greatly benefit a workplace, disengaged employees are less productive, and poor behavior can have an adverse effect on co-workers. Whether it’s complacency, absenteeism, withdrawal or a decline in the quality of their work, these behaviors make the employee difficult to work with.5

How to deal with difficult employees: helpful tips

Fortunately, there are various techniques you can use for dealing effectively with difficult employees.

Focus on Behavior and Not Personality Traits

When you’re dealing with a difficult employee, instead of being judgmental, focus on the employee’s specific actions and behavior. Try to be supportive as you help them to correct behaviors that make them a challenge to work with. Bring the undesirable behavior to their attention without being confrontational, which can make them hostile and won’t solve the problem. Give them specific examples of their negative attitude and behavior so they can understand the problem. Workers may not realize that they’re being difficult.3

Get to the Root of the Problem

Until you understand the causes of their behavioral problems, it is impossible to find effective solutions when dealing with difficult employees. The underlying problem may be directly related to their work, colleagues and workplace environment—or it might be a personal issue that’s completely unrelated. As a leader managing a diverse team, it is your responsibility to discover what their problem is and then try to resolve it.3

Welcome Feedback

An employee’s difficult behavior may be due to frustration with their work experience. Be open to receiving feedback from all your team members. Create an environment where colleagues can speak openly and honestly about what is bothering them. Actively listen to their side of the story, without judgment or prejudice. They may just need someone to patiently listen and understand them, and this may be enough for a behavioral and attitude change.3

Provide Clear Instructions

For change to occur, your difficult colleague must understand what you want of them. If your relationship is in conflict, you first need to encourage them to be more receptive and lower their guard. After that, give them detailed feedback about their behavior, citing examples.3

Outline Expectations and Consequences

Work with the individual to put into writing the behavioral changes you’d like to see and your expectations. Draw up a plan that includes the objectives, a clear timeframe and periodic evaluations of their progress. Include the consequences if they fail to make these behavioral changes. Typically, the individual will take matters seriously if there are clearly stated consequences of their actions (or inaction).3

Monitor Workers’ Progress

After you establish a plan for the difficult employee, you must monitor their progress. In this way, you can help them to achieve the stated goals within the set timeline. To do this:

  • Get feedback from coworkers
  • Evaluate their work quality
  • Conduct regular meetings, one on one
  • Report your observations periodically
  • Use these reports to evaluate the employee’s success3

Be Proactive

A comprehensive hiring process can help minimize difficult workers. All candidates should be subject to a background check, and the hiring manager should consider their behavior in their previous positions and why they quit or were dismissed. A behavioral interview can help an interviewer to uncover red flags that may lead to problematic behavior.3

Be Respectful and Stay Calm

Be cautious when providing negative feedback, especially if you conclude that the worker must be dismissed. People who feel threatened can react in unpredictable ways. Remain calm and avoid criticizing or judging the employee. Maintain a neutral tone and watch your body language. Be professional, honest, and respectful, and focus on the facts.3

Sometimes employees are difficult because they feel they are undervalued. Try to discover the reason for their difficult behavior before dismissal.3

Solutions for managing difficult employees

If your company has a human resources department, it’s best to bring them into the discussion on how to deal with difficult employees. They will know what the company policy is in such situations, and they’re professionals at dealing with interpersonal relationships.

You may have to consider your role in their difficulties. Does this difficult employee have too much work or too little? Are they bored or frustrated? Do you listen to their concerns and feedback? There may be relatively easy fixes to improve the situation. 3

Get the skills and savvy you need to become an effective leader

In Marquette University’s online Master in Management (MiM) program, you’ll learn how to manage your team successfully and align people and business strategies for maximum success– which includes dealing with difficult employees. You’ll benefit from a multidisciplinary approach, with classes selectively curated from human resource management, leadership, organizational behavior and development and change management fields. If you’re interested in building these skills, talk to an admissions outreach advisor today to find out more about the online MiM.

  1. Retrieved on July 14, 2022, from inc.com/encyclopedia/difficult-employees.html
  2. Retrieved on July 14, 2022, from shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/people-managers/pages/toxic-workers-cost-money-.aspx
  3. Retrieved on July 14, 2022, from betterup.com/blog/dealing-with-difficult-employees
  4. Retrieved on July 14, 2022, from gallup.com/workplace/391922/employee-engagement-slump-continues.aspx
  5. Retrieved on July 14, 2022, from forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2018/11/30/12-signs-your-employee-is-disengaging-and-how-to-respond/?sh=70493b032928