10 Ways to Stop Letting Difficult Employees Get Under Your Skin


Written by:

Not everyone you hire will turn out to be the right fit. That may be a harsh pill to swallow as a business owner or manager but it’s the truth.

No matter how well you screen your candidates, every once in a while one of your workers can turn into a problem employee. Someone whose bad attitude or poor performance starts to affect your business and your company culture. A toxic employee can cost you financially and emotionally, and can affect other staff members as well.

Image Credit: RomarioIen / iStock.

Identifying difficult employee behavior

Before we jump into strategies on how you can best deal with this, let’s get a very clear picture of what counts as problematic behavior in the workplace.

A difficult employee isn’t just someone with a poor attitude. It isn’t just laziness at work. It’s more than that. In fact there are a few different types of difficult employees.

They may be someone who:

  • Is disengaged at work and doesn’t live up to their responsibilities
  • Has an attitude that’s having a negative impact on your team
  • Constantly tries to undermine your authority

Regardless of the type, one toxic employee can wreak havoc for your whole team or organization. It can affect team dynamics and performance, severely impact staff morale, and contribute to a perception of a toxic work environment. And according to Forbes, toxic work culture is the number one reason employees are quitting their jobs.

As an employer or manager, you need to get to the root cause of the problematic behavior and weed it out before your challenging employees cause too much damage.

Image Credit: it:fizkes / iStock.

10 strategies for managing difficult employees

Dealing with a toxic employee isn’t an ideal situation to be in, but will likely happen at some point. And when it happens, you’ll want to be prepared to deal with it—and well.

The first and most important thing for you to do is create a playbook with key strategies on how to deal with the situation. Once this playbook is ready you can deal with any current or future issues with toxic and difficult employees.

Image Credit: fizkes / iStock.

1. Establish clear expectations

Start by setting performance standards and goals for your employees. Work with human resources on how to communicate your expectations clearly and consistently, right from the start. As your working relationship grows, regularly monitor progress and provide feedback on employee performance.

If you’re dealing with a current situation and you don’t already have performance standards in place, now is a good time to get started. Create a written plan of the performance or behavioral changes you’d like to see. Provide guidelines and a timeframe by when you expect to see the changes in effect. Then, give the employee a chance to make amends, give them regular feedback on progress, and take it from there.

Image Credit: Depositphotos.com.

2. Encourage open communication

Focus on creating a safe and supportive environment at work. Sometimes employees have a negative attitude because they feel unheard by their own team or manager. At other times, an employee may be going through something difficult in their personal life but feel unable to discuss it openly at work.

If you’d like your employees to feel valued, listen to them—actively and with empathy. Their concerns may be valid and an open communication channel can help you avoid losing employees while the root cause of the problem goes unfixed.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

3. Provide constructive feedback

If you’re attempting to resolve a toxic employee situation, start by explaining why certain specific behaviors are unacceptable in the workplace and their consequences. Follow this up by offering actionable suggestions on how they can improve their behavior. Sharing specific examples and tips is much more useful and practical rather than talking in vague, abstract terms.

Remember that your goal should be to address specific work-related behaviors and how they impact the team or organization. Your feedback shouldn’t focus on a person’s personality traits or inherent characteristics.

As the person works toward their goals, provide feedback on their progress. Be sure to balance positive and negative feedback so your employee is encouraged to keep going. Don’t be afraid to invite employee feedback when necessary and relevant as well.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

4. Implement performance improvement plans

Sitting an employee down and addressing their toxicity is only one part of the difficult conversation you need to have with them. To truly help them put an end to the bad behavior, you will need to collaborate on a performance improvement plan.

It’s helpful to have a template ready for this but obviously, this will need to be customized to each individual situation. Once you’ve clearly addressed the problem behavior, set realistic and measurable goals for your employee.

As a good manager, you should regularly review and monitor the progress of their plan. Remain open to discussions and tweaks along the way so you can adjust as necessary for the best results. Follow up with them to see how they feel about their own progress as well.

Image Credit: wundervisuals.

5. Offer training and development opportunities

The difficult people on your team may simply be incapable of doing their jobs and therefore, unhappy about it. And so we repeat—get to the root cause! If you’re finding that an employee is struggling to do the tasks outlined in their job description, you’ll want to bring this up with them and figure out why.

  • Are they bored of the work?
  • Are they out of touch with what’s considered best practice?
  • Do they have all the skills they need to complete the job?

If you identify a skills gap, provide training and development opportunities to help your team get up to speed. This will both benefit your business and also boost your employee’s confidence. Encourage continuous learning and development within your organization. It’s an essential part of becoming a valuable and integral part of any team.

Image Credit: Space_Cat / istockphoto.

6. Foster a positive workplace culture

A positive work environment doesn’t always develop organically. It has to be created with thoughtfulness and intention. Consider the type of workplace you’d like to have and create it for yourself and for the rest of your team.

This is often especially important for new managers. Set the tone from the beginning. Model the behavior, body language, values, and attitudes you’d like to see in your team. Changing a toxic attitude in one or more employees is sometimes as simple as leading by example.

Breed positivity and good attitudes by recognizing and rewarding good performance. Encourage teamwork and collaboration within the organization so your workers feel aligned to a greater sense of purpose.

Image Credit: istockphoto.

7. Build trust and rapport

If an employee doesn’t feel safe or supported at work, they’re more likely to act out and become difficult. However, if you can create an open and trusting environment, they may be more likely to open up to you.

Being professional at work is obviously important but it doesn’t hurt to add a touch of humanity into it too. Get to know your team. Establish genuine relationships with them as individuals with interests and lives outside of work.

These relationships will help you approach situations with more empathy and understanding of their perspectives as individuals and also as your employees. This environment of trust will help your workers feel supported and less likely to continue being difficult.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

8. Empower employees to solve problems

What would happen if you flipped the script on the situation? Instead of telling your problem employee what to do and how to do it—don’t. Identify the problem for them. Then, encourage them to take ownership of the situation and their own bad behavior.

Provide resources and guide them toward finding solutions but don’t hold their hand through it. Be there if you need but empower them to solve the problem on their own. This will help them introspect on the issue and build problem-solving skills, while also acting as a trust-building exercise.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

9. Define acceptable and unacceptable behavior

You’ve already set clear expectations at this stage. Now, establish the specific consequences for violating these boundaries should these expectations not be met. Provide your employee with time and opportunities to improve on these behaviors. However, should they continue to push the limits, be consistent and follow through with disciplinary action so they know you mean business.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

10. Know when to involve HR or higher-ups

Finally, if you’ve exhausted all your options and the employee’s personal issues, insubordination, negative behavior, or lack of motivation continues to affect their work performance—you may need additional support.

This could mean getting senior management involved. Or, it could mean calling in the HR department for their expertise. Collaborating with human resources can help you address ongoing issues. Follow your company policies and procedures for disciplinary action as needed.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

FAQs about managing difficult employees

In addition to the strategies above, we also wanted to provide you with some answers to the most frequently asked questions about dealing with challenging employees.

How can I distinguish between a difficult employee and a temporary issue?

Always start by giving your employee the benefit of the doubt. Are they really struggling with a lack of motivation because they’re plain lazy? Or maybe there’s something deeper like family or other personal problems? That’s just one example.

Sometimes your employees may be struggling because of their workload. There may be too much on their plates and they just don’t know how to ask for help. Or perhaps they feel underskilled, and therefore less confident and motivated about their work.

Often you’ll find there’s a deeper root cause for the problem behavior. If you can address this issue and have an open conversation with the employee, and the problematic behavior goes away—great! You’ll know it was a one-and-done issue.

However, if the behavior continues despite your best efforts, you’ll know it’s a bigger issue that you need to address and perhaps put the strategies into action.

What if my efforts to manage a difficult employee aren’t working?

If nothing seems to work, it might be time to escalate the issue and involve others. But first, you’ll want to prepare.

  • Record the timeline of the problem. Begin by constructing a timeline of the problem. Articulate clearly—and not emotionally—the problems that have arisen and the steps you’ve taken to try to resolve the issue.
  • Make a compelling case. When you present your conflict to those in your organization, you need to make a compelling case. This might mean including specific actions the toxic person did with the dates and times that they occurred. You might even present video evidence of the issue.
  • Escalate the situation. Once you’ve collected all your information, schedule a time for the discussion with a senior manager or HR, as relevant. Present your information clearly, articulating how the challenges have impacted the organization. If you have notes of specific examples of the person’s actions, bring them with you.

How can I prevent difficult employee behavior from impacting other team members?

A difficult employee can affect everyone on the team. If you let it continue, it can lead to even more disengaged workers who either become toxic themselves or quit because they’re so dissatisfied. Don’t let it affect your employee retention or morale!

Address the situation urgently. Bring up the situation with your team and invite suggestions and feedback from them. Sometimes, an open discussion and knowing that you are doing something about it can be enough for the rest of your team to feel supported.

If possible, put physical distance between the toxic employee and the rest of your team. Let them come to you (discreetly!) so you can coach them on how to interact with the problematic situation without getting drawn into it themselves.

When should I consider terminating a difficult employee?

Despite your best efforts, if the behavior still doesn’t change, it’s time to cut your losses. Accept that some people won’t change. Unfortunately this means having to terminate them.

First document everything. Follow the strategies we’ve discussed above. Make note of the poor behavior as well as the solutions and responses offered. Document the opportunities provided for behavior changes. Be sure to consult your HR department before you take any action.

Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Get expert HR help

The strategies we’ve discussed can help you tackle problematic employee behavior and tough situations as a small business owner, an employer, or a manager. By establishing expectations early on, defining acceptable behavior, building trust, and keeping communication channels open with your team, you’re already off to a great start.

You may not get it right straight away but keep at it. By regularly tweaking your playbook and efforts, you’ll continually improve your company culture and workplace dynamics.

If you’re still struggling and feeling out of your depth, a qualified HR consultant could help you with expert advice on your situation. Hire an HR consultant.

This article originally appeared on Upwork..com Resource Center (Upwork is a company that helps businesses find talent and people find work) and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

More from MediaFeed

4 Jobs Most At-Risk of an AI Takeover

Image Credit: Supatman / iStock.