How to deal with a difficult employee

Every office has them. Whether it's the short fuse, chronic procrastinator or rebel without a cause, all employers will eventually find themselves up against a difficult employee at one time or another.


Despite recruitment agencies limiting the cost of a bad hire, the law of the vital few suggests that 80% of a manager's staff problems are most likely caused by 20% of the workforce. Now while this is a somewhat generalised and debatable theory, there's no questioning the valuable time and resources frequently being wasted in trying to deal with a troublesome worker. Although the financial implications can't be ignored, it's often the effect that these employees have on those around them that proves to be the most problematic.


While many bosses will flip a coin into a wishing well and hope for the best, employers should be encouraged to remove that personnel photo from the dartboard and be proactive in dealing with a difficult employee.


Talk, listen and try to be understanding


Though you may think your nuisance employee is better suited to a cannon than a one-to-one meeting, you might be surprised by what progress can be made by just talking to them. There can be many reasons why a member of staff is proving difficult and sometimes we struggle so much to see past the problems, that we fail to acknowledge that there could be other underlying issues. Taking time to converse with staff could change your perspective on a problem and even reduce it in size. Likewise, an employee may not realise the negative effect they're having on their colleagues, so highlighting this in a calm and professional manner could see a change in their attitude at work. An annual or regular staff appraisal may be a good opportunity to bring up difficult subjects.    


Constructive feedback


Sometimes an incompetent employee just needs a bit of handholding to become an effective member of the team. If you're intent on sweeping their flaws under the carpet, then how do you ever expect them to change? Telling someone that their attitude isn't up to scratch or that they're not pulling their weight will cause them to get defensive and probably increase your problems. Alternatively, the tactful imparting of constructive feedback will make staff aware of their faults while giving them the information to better themselves for the future.


Set goals and highlight the consequences


Staff that feel undervalued can quickly turn into disruptive school children, so it's important to instil them with a sense of purpose and direction. Setting short, mid and long term targets for employees will make them feel an integral cog in the organisation and give them something to focus their attentions on. Of course, it's important to outline clear lines and boundaries in relation to these targets, making them aware that there are definite consequences if they fail to reach them. Without any pressure or incentive to remain productive, difficult employees may slip back into old habits.


Stay professional


While the idyllic boss might be as much a friend as they are a leader, it's important to remain professional when dealing with a difficult employee. Unfortunately, there's little room for sentiment in the business world and staff who aren't performing effectively need to be addressed. If you've found that putting an arm around their shoulder is getting you nowhere, it's time to take a more objective approach and remember that the company remains the priority over the individual.


Terminate (they won't be back)


Occasionally we all have to accept defeat and despite the legal process involved, sometimes it's better to let an employee go then to continue banging your head against a brick wall. Not every case will be receptive to your efforts and realising that your time and energy could be better spent elsewhere might be best for both parties. While re-entering the recruitment process and training a replacement can be costly in the short-term, a content and productive workforce should ultimately be your overall ambition.


Dealing with a difficult employee is just part and parcel of running a business and learning to address the situation effectively will limit the amount of disruption to your operations. While some staff might need little intervention beyond light man-management, others may just be a lost cause and appreciating that each case is different will give you the best chance of employing the right personnel tactics for your organisation.

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