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Dealing with Difficult Employees

Unfortunately, even when we try to hire nothing but the best, create a strong team environment, train, coach, and motivate, there is still the chance you will have a difficult employee or two.  One who:


  • Calls out sick and rides the time off policies to the very edge.
  • Does the absolute minimum work expected, but just enough to fly under the radar.
  • Testing and criticizing the office policies in place.
  • Gossiping, but not to where it can be seen in the office.
  • Backstabs fellow employees.
  • Controls a situation by using negativity.
  • Has a bad attitude.
  • Conducts themselves poorly.


The worst thing is that they do not have enough infractions to suspend, let alone terminate.  They know how to work the system.  They are the “bottom of the curve” employees. 


Everyone can’t be a star player, but they should at least be average.  With the difficult employee, there is no enthusiasm, drive, and usually a bad attitude.  Just when you think there is a chance after some private motivational conversation, they will pull the rug from underneath you once again and leave you wondering why you have this employee.  It affects the morale of co-workers and of those who work hard and follow the rules.  It tests your ability as a leader and manager, and starts to poison the well with the teams’ lack of faith in management.


Chances are, this type of behavior has not only worked for them in the past, but is simply part of their personality.  They feel like they are smart enough, and even smarter than their co-workers, to beat the system.  They become so difficult that managers and co-workers just start to put up with it, which makes the person feel like they won.  They feel they can get away with anything and even have a look about them that says, “What are you going to do about it?”  The good news is there are some things you can do to correct this type of behavior and start holding them more accountable.


No one likes to have to deal with these types of problem employees, but when you have an employee who is disruptive, has a bad attitude, or is quite frankly a “bad apple,” you need to deal with it as soon as possible.  You should never pretend this problem does not exist, or hope it somehow corrects itself.  You will lose the respect of your team if you do not deal with the situation.  You need to deal with this type of issue immediately with a “zero tolerance policy” once you start to see the cracks.  Don’t wait, it will only get worse.  It may even get beyond repair on what has already been broken.

Steps to take when dealing with difficult employees:


  1. Counsel and verbal warning: Get all of the facts and bring that person into your office without making a big scene.  Be honest, and upfront, and discuss what you are seeing and how important it is to have the whole department working in “harmony”.  Simply ask if there is anything wrong, or if there is something happening in the workplace that is causing what is perceived as “a person with a bad attitude who is unhappy at work.”  Listen and show empathy if the conversation is headed that way.  There may be some personal issues that they just need to get off of their chest.  If you get a sarcastic, “Nothings wrong with me,” then you need to state that is not what you see.  You have to be strong, but not attacking, and let them know that the behavior shown is not acceptable and needs to improve. 


Be sure you are focusing on the problem, not the person.  You are seeing a behavioral issue that you are concerned with, but do not make it seem like it is a personal attack on the person because you do not like them.  Stay calm, let them do the talking, and be sure you are letting the person know that you are truly listening by being able to recap the conversation.


Point out their strengths, and try to first focus on the good aspects of their performance rather than a perceived bad attitude.  The goal is for the boss, and co-workers, to try to see the positive, and not the negative.


Use a lot of “I” statements like, “I need to make sure the department is working in harmony,” or “I cannot accept bad behavioral problems in the department.”   Do not focus on the person and say, “You need to...”


Document and date this conversation as a verbal warning.  This is not a written warning, but shows that you did talk to the person about difficult employee issues.  The more you document, the easier it will be to terminate if it gets to that point.  The biggest mistake is to not document.  Documentation and building a case is the proof that shows you talked to this employee many times but to no avail. 


  1. First and second written warnings:  Continue to confront until the behavioral problems are eliminated.  The employee might feel like they are under the microscope and you are on a witch-hunt, but this is the only way to fix the problem for good.  It might take some time depending on the situation, but you need to show you will not give in until you are completely satisfied.  Also realize you do have to show equality for all.  For example, if the employee is always just a few minutes late but within the grace period, you need to make sure if there are others with the same bad habits that they are dealt with as well.  If the issue is not resolved, then you will need to explain possible disciplinary action.  The nature of the discipline depends on the issue and HR policies.  The problem may or may not be as clear-cut as job performance or attendance issues.  Again, make sure you document the overall conversation.


You may need to ask for HR’s help as well.  There is nothing wrong with this.  You do, however, need to make sure you have truly done all you can before it gets to this point.


The overall goal is for the employee to fully understand the problem at hand, what the solution must be, and what the consequences are if the behavioral problems continues.  You should obviously never reward anyone for bad behavior, but if the person truly shows vast improvement, you can give the recognition deserved.  It cannot be seen to the team that “if you have a bad attitude, you get what you want.”   It should be seen as you had a situation that needed to be dealt with, they’ve seen an improvement in the person’s attitude and performance, and you are doing what is best for the overall good of the department.  Do not discuss any personal issues, or even what was said to the employee, with the rest of the staff.  If they ask you any questions, even in private, just say that you addressed the situation and what was said and done is confidential.  They might be a bit disappointed not to hear the juicy gossip, but you will gain more respect in the long run for keeping all employee related issues confidential.  This goes for the employee who is asking as well. 


  1. Suspension and/or termination.  If it gets to the point where you have tried everything mentioned in steps 1 and 2, and the employee is still not willing to change behavioral problems, then you need to begin suspension and/or termination procedures in accordance with your company's policies.  


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