12 Ways to Deal with Difficult Employees

Joanna Zambas
Joanna Zambas

Content Manager and Career Expert

Employee playing videogames at work

You thought managing was a breeze, that your team were amazing – until that one problematic employee came along, right? At first, you thought they would slide right into the team seamlessly – they ticked all the right boxes and had the right skills and a confident attitude.

But the walls have slowly come crashing down and you’ve discovered that they’re nothing but a Negative Nancy tearing down team morale with their bad attitude and lack of professionalism.

The truth is most managers get held hostage by these disruptive employees, what with having to waste all their time and energy on them and not being able to bite the bullet and dismiss them for good.

Fortunately, we’re here to help! We’ve compiled this list of tips to help you deal with troublesome employees in a diplomatic and effective way.

1. Recognise the Problem

Although it might be a lot easier to just ignore the problem, hoping it will simply go away, you’ll need to face facts and recognise the issue by finding ways to confront the employee in question and solve the problem at hand. By also taking on your destructive employee, you’ll send a message to your team that you’re a capable manager who won’t put up with anything other than hardworking, positive staff members.

2. Listen

When dealing with a difficult employee, you’ll most likely be inclined to switch off and not actually pay attention to what they’re saying. However, there may be an underlying issue to why they’re behaving the way they are, and in order to be able to manage the situation properly, you’ll need to have a conversation with them and listen carefully to what they have to say. In some cases, employees act out because they feel as though their voice isn’t being heard or there is someone else in the picture that could be the route of the problem. So, by simply listening to them, they’ll begin to feel valued and this can result in a change of attitude.

3. Observe

Before handling a complaint, it’s important to check out the situation for yourself and collect all the facts. For example, you could monitor the employee over a period of time to determine whether their bad behaviour was a one-time-only thing or if it’s a recurring problem. Often, it’s due to personal issues – and I’m sure there are days when you aren’t feeling 100% well, either!

4. Give Constructive Feedback

Although it can be really uncomfortable to give negative feedback, it’s important to do this in a constructive manner. Remember: don’t take it personally – or make it personal, for that matter! Be sure to keep any advice you offer positive and to provide pointers that will help them improve their behaviour and boost their productivity – without crushing their confidence in the process.

Meanwhile, if it’s something that can be addressed to the whole team, it might be better to call a team meeting where you can provide general tips to everyone. You could use specific examples of what the problematic team member has done, without actually calling them out. This should help them get the hint that they need to improve their methods without feeling like it was a personal attack on them.

5. Provide Solutions

As a manager, you need to help your employee get back on track and improve in the areas they’re lagging. Remember: it’s your duty to help them create an action plan and provide easy-to-follow solutions.

You can begin by having a private meeting with them and create specific career goals for them. The next step is to come up with a step-by-step plan on how they can meet these targets, along with timeframes when these should be completed by. Make sure you provide the right amount of training and that you check in on them on a regular basis to ensure they’re getting the attention they need.

6. Document Everything

Throughout this process, it’s important to document everything. If you’re providing additional training, be sure to follow up in writing to ensure there’s proof of the steps you’re taking to help the employee progress. It, hopefully, won’t come to letting them go, but in case it does, you’ll need a paper trail showing their lack of improvement.

7. Be Consistent

When it comes to structure and discipline in the workplace, you need to be consistent at all times. For example, if you set a deadline for a project but allow some employees to turn it in a week or two later, it’ll encourage the less keen workers to follow suit. Therefore, it’s important to develop clear instructions and targets, and make sure you stick to them without fail.

8. Set Consequences

Now that you’ve learnt how to set your plan, you can clearly monitor and manage the employee’s improvements. If you can see that they aren’t sticking to the plan, they lack motivation and they’re generally not putting in the effort, you need to set clear consequences, like giving them an official warning, for example.

You could say something like: ‘I do believe you can turn this around if you give it your 100%; however, as I’ve not seen that kind of enthusiasm so far, you’ll be given a warning (or let go) if we don’t see any changes by [date]’.

9. Stick to the HR Policy

When dealing with a difficult employee, it’s important to follow the rules by the book. And as a manager, you should speak to your HR department about any issues that arise in the workplace and come up with ways of handling these matters as professionally as possible.

Your HR manager will also be able to give you advice on how to coach your team member and try to get the best out of them. For example, you could provide them with positive feedback when they’re doing good and generally encourage them to keep going.

10. Follow Up

Make sure you catch up with your employees regularly and set one-to-one meetings to check that they’re meeting the objectives that you set at the beginning of this process. If you start to flake, they will, too – so, it’s important to show your dedication to their advancement so they can match and exceed that determination.

11. Know When to Fold

Unfortunately, sometimes an employee’s mentality just can’t be changed and they’re simply not good for the team and the overall morale. This is when terminating their employment – preferably on good terms – is the only solution. Have a conversation with the employee in question to see whether they’re even happy in their role or if they too feel like it’s not working out for them.

12. Help Them Find a Better Suited Position

Sometimes, you may find that although the employee has great skills, they just aren’t suited for the role they’ve been given. In this case, you can help them move departments or even find a better position that they would enjoy more and be a lot more excited about. If you can move them around in your team – great! If not, do give them a lead for another position (if you have one).

Dealing with a difficult employee is not going to be easy, but as a manager, it’s part of your responsibilities. And with the tips highlighted above, you’ll be able to tackle the issue before things get out of hand, all the while knowing that you have helped them as much as you could.

Have you ever dealt with a tricky employee before? If so, join in on the conversation below and share your story…


This article was originally published in June 2013.