Difficult employee? Save your sanity and follow these steps

Every workplace has them: the gossiper, the complainer, the blamer, the slacker. Don’t let a bad apple ruin your day or your team. Check your emotions, side-step the drama, and follow these steps to handle the situation.

A difficult employee can sabotage your team

The key to managing difficult employees is to handle problems at once. Ignoring their behaviors can cause morale to fall because good employees become annoyed with the difficult employee, or because they begin to side with them. Either way, your work environment will suffer. Good employees may start to slack, or may leave.

Assess the situation, first-hand if possible

When you first hear complaints or begin to see a problem, start by observing and noticing. Look for specific behaviors. Vague phrases like “wasting time”, “not being productive” or “causing issues” are not useful because they don’t name the problem behavior, and more importantly, don’t explain what you want to see instead. Document problem behaviors specifically, such as “late X times last month”, “missed this or that deadline”, or “observed X times making negative comments about coworkers”.

Meet with the employee as soon as possible

Begin your meeting with open-ended questions. (How are things going? Tell me what’s going well and what is challenging.) Actively listen to responses. The employee may be aware of the problem and bring it up. If they don’t, you will need to, but they will probably listen better if they’ve felt heard first. Remember that people may react poorly in one area due to stress in another. (Think of the toddler having a fit in the store, not because he wants that piece of candy so desperately, but because he’s long overdue for a nap.) Listening and supporting an employee in one area can help them be more positive and productive in others.

Give specific examples of the problem

Use your observations to describe the behavior you saw and what you want to see instead. Be sure to focus on behaviors and not judgments of them as a person. Your first meeting is to discuss the unwanted behavior and be sure they understand it isn’t acceptable. You should say specifically that you expect the behavior to stop and what will happen if it doesn’t. You may say that the next step would be a formal written warning, followed by a consequence. Depending on the behavior, the consequence may be that they are not eligible for a raise or promotion, may be transferred to another team, or may be terminated.

Follow procedure

When you get to the point of giving formal consequences, be sure to check in with human resources and company policies. Your first discussion should be open-minded, making it clear that you hope the behavior will stop and the employee will continue on your team. If it doesn’t go that way, you need to be ready to take action.

Set a timeline

Once the employee knows what you expect, give a time that you will check back on their progress. If you have any resources to help, such as extra training or a peer mentor, offer them.

Avoid ongoing problems–be consistent

Employees will push boundaries less if your expectations are clear. As a manager, you need to decide the major expectations for your team and be sure everyone knows them. These are the “big deal” items that you expect of everyone and that you will always respond to if not met. On each of these major points, your team should know your expectation, why it’s important, and what happens if they do or don’t meet it.

Be sure to manage your own emotions. Your personal feelings about an employee should not be wrapped up in this process. Be sure your expectations are predefined, and react predictably if they aren’t met.

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