Tips for Managing a Difficult Employee
If you manage people long enough, you will sooner or later find yourself dealing with
difficult employees. There is no easy fix that will always work. Each situation is as unique
as the people involved and their workplace environment. Yet there are some basic steps that
most managers can take to deal with the situation. Here is an approach that might work:
Confront the Situation
Hoping that a difficult employee will change their behavior is wishful thinking. You
must confront the situation and deal with it. This conversation doesn't necessarily need to
be confrontational; however, you must have an honest discussion with the recalcitrant employee.
Take him aside in a conference room, and let him know that his behavior is unacceptable. Make
sure to focus on the behavior and not the person. Be specific about the inappropriate behavior
and focus on what is expected.
Then ask some questions about why he is behaving that way. The answers can range from
problems with other employees, problems outside of work, or simple a lack of awareness that
his behavior is an issue. Regardless of the cause, only after there is an awareness of disruptive
behavior can steps be taken to remediate the situation. You should reiterate your expectations
at the end of the meeting. Later make a brief summary of the meeting as a memorandum for the
record in case this escalates to a more serious situation.
Develop a Plan
Your plan will be determined largely by the outcome of your dialogue with the employee.
If he is having an issue with another employee then this becomes a much more complex challenge
because you now need to involve another person. You can run the risk of begin triangulated
on the issue between two employees, and it might be difficult to get to the root causes of
the problem. You will likely need to have further conversations to finalize your plan.
If the employee is having issues outside of the workplace, perhaps you can assist in
some way with a referral to outside resources or simply give them time off to deal with their
issues. These situations are challenging because you really don't want to inject yourself into
an employee's personal problems; however, a little time off or outside help from an employee
assistance program might be enough resolve the problem.
Finally, if it was the case that the employee is simply unaware of the impact of his
behavior, then some coaching might just be what is needed. Hopefully, he would be willing to
change his behavior now that he has been made aware of it. Just remember that whenever you
develop a plan to move forward, make sure that the employee agrees with it. If he is not in
agreement with the proposed plan of action, then keep working until you can develop a plan
that both of you think will work. You also need to be clear on the consequence if there isn't
any change within a reasonable period of time.
Get Some Help
In more difficult situations, it is likely that some frank conversations and an improvement
plan may not work. At this point, you may need to seek help from either your own boss or someone
from human resources. They may have some alternative ideas to resolve the issues or can act
as a third party to provide unbiased feedback to everyone involved. Your boss may have other
options like moving this employee to a different department to give them another chance. They
will also be in a position to help you decide the next steps if more serious action is required
like formal counseling or in the extreme cases - termination.
Dealing with problem employees is never easy, but it comes with the job of being a manager.
In the end, there may not be a solution other than ending the employment relationship. If you
followed the process and made a good faith effort to allow the employee to change their behavior,
then you will not only protect your company, but also be able to proceed with the knowledge
that you have done your best to handle the situation. The termination conversation may still
be difficult, but it should not be a surprise to the employee. As difficult as this may be,
it is an opportunity for everyone to turn the page and move forward.
Leonard Kloeber is an author and leadership consultant. He has extensive leadership experience
as business executive and as a military officer. He has been a hands-on leader in a variety
of organizations large and small. Most recently he was a human resources executive for a Fortune
His book -
Victory Principles, Leadership Lessons from D-Day - illustrates seven bedrock leadership
principles that all successful leaders use. Download a free summary of the Victory Principles at:
Victory Principles and find
other bonus materials for leaders. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
WM Comment: I would add one more thing to Leonard Kloeber's article: Keep a precise log
of events. In most states employment is "at will," which means an employee can be fired at any time,
for any reason, or for no reason at all. But wrongful termination suits are still very common. A
company can still be sued for discrimination, firing in retaliation, firing because employee refuses
to commit an illegal act, or simply for not following the termination procedures in the employee handbook.
Having a log of the problems with the employee, meetings held, and actions taken can demonstrate
to the court that the company acted appropriately and within the guidelines of its fair and equitable policies.