How to deal with difficult staff

If you’re managing an employee whose behaviour becomes challenging it’s best to take action quickly before it escalates. But how do you minimise the impact on morale?

Of course, situations like this can be difficult and stressful to handle.

It can affect your enjoyment and ability to do your own job, and worse still, it can make you question your own judgement and ability as a manager.

Just remember that you can’t control how someone behaves but you can control how you respond to it.

What is a difficult employee?

A member of your team could be doing (or not doing) various things to make them ‘difficult’ including:

  • not acting professionally
  • being rude, having a bad attitude or gossiping
  • coming in late often
  • not completing their work by set deadlines
  • not taking direction or constantly challenging authority.

If this is the case with any of your team members then it needs addressing appropriately.

How to deal with a difficult employee in the first instance

First and foremost, it’s really important that you don’t take the situation personally and make sure you leave it at work. Easier said than done, but taking on the situation in a professional and process-driven manner will help this.

Initially, ask yourself if this is a one-off or if there’s a clear reason why it’s happening. Sometimes behaviour can seem unreasonable when it’s someone else doing it and we don’t know why, even though we might well act the same in a similar situation.

Give them the benefit of the doubt and remember that everyone is different. Ask for a second opinion from someone (another manager or HR) but don’t gossip.

If you can’t see it from their perspective or it’s a recurring issue then you will need to speak to the employee. Make sure you are in the right frame of mind before you begin and be willing to really listen.

Key takeaway: Think carefully and objectively about how to best deal with the situation before you jump in.

Possible root causes for challenging behaviour at work

Before you meet up with the employee, consider what the root causes of the problem might be and the possible solutions. Poor performance could be caused by the employee:

  • not fully understanding their job role or responsibilities
  • not having had adequate training or supervision
  • being unclear about expectations or deadlines
  • having an illness or personal difficulties.

The process for dealing with a difficult member of staff

Following a process will help you deal with the circumstances objectively and logically, not emotionally. Consult your company’s policies and procedures if they have them or ask your HR department or advisors for support.

The process you should follow is likely to involve:

  • discussing the issues with the member of staff and listening to their perspective
  • giving clear feedback and telling them what you expect and how they can bridge the gap
  • giving them ownership of resolving the problem and asking them to create an action plan
  • helping them to remove any barriers
  • monitoring their progress and following up with them.

When you begin the process make sure you go through with it consistency so it’s fair and everyone involved knows what to expect. Document all of the conversations. If nothing has improved after this procedure has been followed then the next steps would be disciplinary action and ultimately fire them.

Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer at Netflix and the author of Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility draws us back to the bigger picture; “Your goal is to build a great team that does great work and to do that you need productive, engaged employees.”

Prevention not cure

Even the best managers will never be able to completely eliminate all issues with employees but cultivating a great team culture can help ensure a happy workforce and prevent issues from occurring in the first place. Cultivate a great culture by:

  • putting time and effort into the recruitment process
  • having an open-door policy
  • conducting regular one-to-ones with your team
  • investing in and prioritising training
  • working in a healthy and flexible environment

In summary

The best way to deal with difficult staff is to do just that and deal with it. Don’t ignore the issue and hope it will go away.

It’s frustrating to have time taken away from doing your own activities but as a manager, supporting, developing and supervising your staff should take up a good percentage of your time in order for the whole team to thrive.

Further reading on managing staff:

Sophie Cross is a freelance writer and marketer specialising in business and travel. She is the editor for London Revealed magazine and her clients include lastminute.com Group and the Coca-Cola London Eye.

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