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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 100 company.

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 staffride@gmail.com


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.

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