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How to deal with difficult employees

By Alison Rodericks | 06 August 2018

Emily was promoted to Team Leader three months ago. She now manages a team of 10 staff. While most of them work well together, there are two individuals who constantly disrupt the workflow. While one finds fault with everyone and everything, is aggressive towards co-workers and takes credit for other people’s work, the other individual gossips about others, uses bad language and comes to work with a hangover quite regularly. Quite frankly, it’s wearing Emily down. She dreads having to deal with their frequent flare-ups. Managing workplace conflict and negative behaviour eats into her time and gets emotionally exhausting. 

Unfortunately, if you’re a manager/ department head/ supervisor, dealing with difficult employees is part and parcel of the job since every workplace has got at least one individual whose behaviour is problematic. So how do you deal effectively with difficult employees? Here are some management tips to deal with workplace conflict competently.

Deal with the issue ASAP

Most of us dread confrontation and try to avoid conflict, hoping things will sort themselves out. But ignoring the actions of a difficult employee often snowballs into bigger problems if it goes unaddressed. 

You need to show the team you lead as well as upper management that you are aware of the problem and that you are taking steps to rectify the situation. If you don’t act swiftly, your inaction could result in tension brewing between co-workers, low workplace morale and decreased productivity. As a manager, it is your duty to show leadership and speak to the employee in question before things get out of hand.

Unhappy/bored employees having a meeting

Listen without prejudice

Set up a meeting to talk to the staff member who is causing conflict. Have an open conversation with them, giving them an opportunity to talk about the situation so that you can see their side of the story. 

Ask questions: Why did the issue arise? When did it begin? How did it get to this point? Most people become defensive and difficult when they feel they are not being treated fairly, so give the employee the benefit of the doubt. They might not even realise that what they were doing was wrong, so talking things through allows them to see things from another angle and, hopefully, improve their behaviour. Perhaps they are having issues at home, health problems or trouble settling into a new role. Quite often, negative behaviour stems from fear of not knowing how to do a job and how to ask for help. An open conversation will determine whether or not you can resolve the problem and what steps can be taken to achieve this.

Document everything

Once you decide to discuss an employee’s negative behaviour with them, you need to plan how to get the best outcome for all. Seek advice from someone experienced like HR personnel or a senior manager. List down possible pressure points and come up with tactics to deal with tricky situations.

It is very important to write down everything that transpires right from the start. Make sure you have dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s. This comes in handy if you ever get to a point where you have to dismiss the difficult employee from his/her job. You will need a clear written record of all misbehaviour backed by evidence from other staff members. You can also seek advice from the human resources department on how best to do this.

Keep it professional

As the boss, you must rise above personal prejudice and office gossip; do not let your own biases get in the way. This is business, so keep things professional and polite. Resist the urge to retaliate even if your staff member is lashing out at you when you try to discipline him or her. It is wise to have someone from HR sit in on the meeting so that there is a neutral third party in the room. Focus on the person’s behaviours and do not attack the person him/herself.

professional team meeting

Stick to the topic

If the person tries to derail the discussion and change the topic, your role is to remain calm, remind them what the conversation is all about, and bring them back to the set agenda. Give the offender concrete examples of his/her negative behaviour which is causing conflict, rather than just making general statements. 

For example, if you are discussing an employee’s tardiness, instead of saying, ‘You are always late”, say, “In the past month, you have been late to 4 out of 5 important external meetings. This is unprofessional and has showed our company in a bad light to outside agencies.”

Suggest solutions

Once you have explained why the employee’s behaviour is inappropriate, they need to be told what the correct behaviour is so that they can change their habits. So come up with a list of possible solutions; better yet, come up with solutions together. You can suggest points for improvement and the employee can add his/her input so that you reach an agreeable outcome together. This is a win-win for both parties.

Plan a follow-up meeting

While some situations like listening to music too loudly or dressing inappropriately might be sorted out with one quick meeting or warning, other situations call for multiple reminders and one-on-one meetings with the problematic staff member. So make sure you notify the employee that he/she will be assessed on an ongoing basis. You will need to diarise and pre-plan these regular evaluations. As long as there is gradual improvement, you are on the right track.

Let there be consequences

You need to be clear with the offending employee that if their behaviour doesn’t show improvement by a set date, there will be repercussions. The consequences need to be in proportion to the severity of the problem. You need to be specific, such as: they will not be eligible for the yearly bonus, they will be looked over for a promotion, they will be put on notice, they will be let go. You have to follow through with the said disciplinary action if the inappropriate behaviour continues. Always enlist the help of your HR department for guidelines.

young female employee dismissed from job

Being a manager’s a tough job sometimes, but with the right guidance and mindset, situations like these get easier to mediate. If you’re after more management advice, be sure to check out more of SkillsTalk’s articles on Management here. If you're looking to dive into a more management-related role in your workplace, you might want to consider looking into one of our many online Management courses here. 

Resolving disputes between employees and advising them on workplace matters are also important skills and responsibilities involved in the Human Resources field. If you think you’re well suited for this type of role, perhaps you’d like to delve more into the jobs involved through our HR-related articles here, or if you’re already considering a career -  check out many of Upskilled’s online courses in the Human Resources sector here.

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