How to Handle a Difficult Employee in the Workplace

Most of us have worked at a company with a difficult employee—or several difficult employees. They’re not hard to spot. 

While difficult employees may be good, even great, at certain aspects of their job, they also exhibit negative behaviors. They often:

  • Don’t get along well with others. 
  • Create conflict that leads to low morale and poor productivity. 
  • Lack attention to detail or fail to focus on producing high-quality work. 

Whatever their specific characteristics, their actions and behaviors ultimately cause damage to the company culture and brand.  

How Difficult Employees May Harm Your Company 

Difficult employees can do significant damage, not only to their own work environment but to the entire company. Just one toxic employee can negatively impact the rest of the team in a number of ways. It’s a situation you’re likely familiar with both as an employee and manager. 

quote on impacts negative employees have on business

Negative employees bring their bad attitudes into the work environment and drag down the rest of the team.

In addition to impacting their team, difficult employees also represent a drain on the company’s human resources team. Time spent dealing with the impacts of difficult employees is a poor investment for any company.

The negative impact of difficult employees spreads like a virus, ultimately impacting the entire organization, its culture, and its reputation.

list of negative effects of difficult employees

Steps for Dealing with Difficult Employees 

It’s important to be proactive when dealing with difficult employees. Taking the following steps can help to minimize the potential damage that they might otherwise cause. 

1. Identify the Problem 

The first step when dealing with a difficult employee is clearly identifying the problem. 

What specific actions or behaviors is the employee exhibiting that are problematic? Being specific can help you to clearly clarify the situation in terms of the business impact for the organization.

Keep in mind that it also is important to be consistent in what you identify as problem behavior, focusing on the action and impact on the organization rather than personality traits. For instance: “When you are late you create more work for other employees,” rather than “You are unreliable.”

2. Listen to Feedback and Ask Clarifying Questions 

Before rushing to judgment or deciding that you know exactly how to handle the situation, it’s important to seek—and carefully listen to—feedback. Feedback may come from the employee who is exhibiting difficult behavior, from other employees who are impacted by the behavior, by customers, or others.

It’s important to gain a wide range of perspectives on the issue to help determine to what extent the behavior is a problem and the impact the behavior is having.  

When listening to feedback and asking clarifying questions it’s important to stay neutral. You are gathering information, not applying judgment.

3. Work With the Difficult Employee to Create an Action Plan 

Once you have defined the issue and gathered supporting information from a variety of sources, it’s time to approach the difficult employee. As you do this, it is important to be non-confrontational. 

Your goal is to work with the employee to come to a mutual agreement about what needs to be done to change the behavior and the negative impact being caused.

This should be a private discussion that is focused on the behavior rather than the person. In what ways is the behavior impacting the productivity of the department, the quality of work, relationships with others?

Working together, create an action plan for what will happen next. What are your expectations? What has the employee agreed to in terms of moving forward? 

4. Define and Enforce Consequences for Repeated Behavior 

An important part of your discussion with a difficult employee will be outlining the next steps and consequences for repeated behaviors. 

Most companies will have a corrective discipline process that includes steps like counseling, verbal warning, written warning, termination. Be sure to review and clarify these steps with the employee, outlining specifically what behaviors will lead to the next step in the disciplinary process.

Then hold the employee accountable. It’s very important that the consequences you have discussed and agree to are followed.

5. Follow-up To Ensure Behavior Has Changed 

Set a specific time for a follow-up to assess whether improvements have been made or to identify additional actions that will need to be taken. 

Often the process of dealing with a difficult employee doesn’t progress in a straight line from your first discussion to a resolution. You may initially see some progress and then the employee may backslide. 

It’s important to stay on top of the employee’s actions and to follow up frequently and consistently to ensure that behavior has changed—or to follow through with the consequences you previously outlined.

6. Document, Document, Document 

Throughout the process of working with a difficult employee, you should document the process. 

Document the:

  • The original issue that prompted your discussions.
  • Agreements made between you and the employee to modify behaviors. 
  • Progress made toward improving behaviors. 
  • Issues related to continued problems.
  • Ultimate outcome.

Include the times and dates of your interactions with the employee and be very specific about what was agreed to and the steps taken. 

Not only will this documentation be important if you need to terminate the employee or if the employee later files a complaint, but the documentation can be useful to you in the future if you need to deal with similar situations. This will ensure that you are consistent in how you approach difficult employees.

The ability to deal with difficult employees doesn’t come naturally. It’s a process that evolves over time based on training, information, and experience. Training for dealing with difficult employees can help your people leaders be more effective. 

Learn 10 Core Skills to Effectively Deal with Employees Issues

The Leadership Journey’s proprietary leadership training incorporates short bursts of learning with practical application to teach 10 core skills like:

  • Dealing with difficult employees.
  • Improving communication.
  • Holding others accountable.
  • Handling conflict. 

Interested in learning more? View a list of all 10 core skills in this leadership training.

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Categories: Leadership, Management, Supervisory
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Author: Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Lin is a business journalist and communication strategist with expertise in HR and employee relations. She is accredited through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM-SCP) and Human Resource Certification Institute (SPHR) and writes frequently for SHRM, HR Daily Advisor, and a wide range of trade publications and corporate clients.