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20 Ways to Deal with Difficult Employees While Saving Your Business

Summary: A problem employee can cause damage to your staff and business. But knowing how to address the issue can be a balance of addressing the problem employee while improving the morale of your entire team. Your employees will have more confidence in you, as their manager, if you take steps to remedy the employee’s bad behavior. This article offers 20 definitive courses of action for dealing with problematic employees for the benefit of all.

20 Ways to Deal with Difficult Employees While Saving Your Business
  • A bad experience for one employee can affect more than the individual; it can affect the morale and performance of the entire team.
  • Even as a manager, bad employees can bring out the worst in you. This may affect your interactions and cause ineffectual communication that only makes the problem worse.
  • It is important to address both the person and the problem behavior in a manner that doesn’t threaten your own standing and also elevates the performance of your team.
  • This article will offer 20 definitive methods of dealing with bad employees and their behavior as well as ways of creating a better environment for your whole team.

When a Bad Apple Comes to a Good Barrel

They’re called bad apples. This, based on an ancient proverb that said it takes only one bad apple to spoil a barrel’s worth, and it’s true. (It’s science!) And as you’ll see, what’s true with pome fruits is also true with problematic humans infecting good organizations.

It’s also true that the longer the problematic employee’s behavior goes unchecked, the more negative the impact it will have on the whole team. They can degrade productivity and morale through their own poor performance; they can act in a manner that makes them difficult to deal with; they can struggle to get along with others; or they can affect some combination of all three. Even when they mean well, they may never seem to get on the right side of things. And yet somehow they made it through the hiring process. They may have considerable skills, but they’re still not the right fit.

As a leader or manager, it’s incumbent on you to get the most out of your people. You need to have an eye and ear for identifying and dealing with difficult people and, somehow, try to guide them toward success.

And yet, unfortunately, even the best laid plans can fail. When that happens, management and productivity can be held hostage by difficult staff. In the process you’ll be robbed of valuable time, concentration, and emotional energy. In part because letting them go seems even more difficult, especially when disgruntled former employees can find so many justifications to sue or create general havoc.

Below are 20 effective ways of managing difficult employees that will allow you to become a team leading alchemist that can turn the inevitable problem straw into professional gold (when possible):

1) Stress management 1: nurturing good stress

How many businesses describe their workplaces as nirvana?

“We aim for greatness by hiring the most excellent people, by providing the most excellent service, by creating the most excellent processes, and maintaining the most excellent work environment. And because of this, our clients achieve greatness because our greatness comes from their greatness!"

All this promise of excellence can also cause stress. But not all stress is bad. Manageable stress can be useful when trying to transform your processes or re-energize a company’s sagging culture. It can motivate actions.

At best, good stress can kill poor habits and obsolete behaviors that produce less than optimal results. It’s exactly what you want.

As long as there’s not too much of it.

2) Stress management 2: tempering bad stress

But bad stress is something all too common in the workplace. It is often a condition born out of high pressure schedules. At a certain level, stress stops as a momentum inducer and has the opposite effect. People can get immobilized by it, lose the ability to create or innovate, and instead fear the consequences of making poor decisions. Their best work will not happen under these circumstances. This is the territory that Harvard Business School’s John Kotter calls the “Productive Range of Distress.”

This “range” is a sweet spot and can easily go beyond into the much less productive: you want to motivate people while keeping stress low enough to prevent catastrophe. You’ll have to exercise careful judgment to decide just what your most productive range is. Staff can reflexively want to turn down the heat and complain. Sometimes these complaints may be indications that you’ve found the right environment for the hard work to get done.

This heat can also cause acting out and this may require leaders to intervene. There are steps to be taken to help bring stress levels back to more manageable levels again—more on that below.

3) Listen

This may be more difficult than it sounds.

When attempting to manage bad employees, we tend to stop listening to them as a coping mechanism. We do it to avoid taking on their stress. The result can be that we’ll get irritated and may too quickly jump to conclusions about the person.

A good leader will pay more attention to an individual when they are not doing well. There’s no way to solve the problem without a clear understanding of what it is, including understanding the difficult person’s point of view. Under the best circumstances, the problem employee needs to be heard. In doing so, the problem is immediately reduced. Also, maybe the issues—at least some—are legitimate and deserve a listen. In any event, listening is where you need to start.

4) Inspire

What’s the bigger picture? How do individual contributions help the team? Why is it so important that this project is done right? How do you feel about the work?

This is like listening except now you’re not listening to the problem, but to the actual person. We all love stories. They’ve been a part of our culture since we came out of the trees. It sounds quaint but the human element is often left out of the workplace.

Part of the solution of how to deal with problem employees is helping them to feel that they fit in. Let them know that when they get the work right. Praise matters. Maybe problem employees are people who are acting out of frustration. And if so, maybe the solution is making a genuine connection. Listen to the person. Listening doesn’t have to make you friends—keep it professional.

And maybe this isn’t the problem—but if it isn’t, attempting to inspire will cost you nothing.

5) Feedback: If not positive, at least be clear

Very often the offending person has not been given a good description of what they’re doing wrong. It’s easy to understand why: giving tough feedback can be very uncomfortable for both the giver and recipient. It’s important that you learn how to do this well. Provide feedback in a way that doesn’t raise a person’s defensiveness and gives them specific information they can use to improve.

Also, recognize and reinforce the things they’re doing right. By helping them solve their problem, you’re creating momentum. You want them to feel like they’re making progress.

6) And encourage feedback in return

Going beyond just listening to problems when they arise, according to another study, allows employees to feel valued in being heard. It not only makes them feel better, mentally and even physically, and it also increases job performance and satisfaction and it decreases turnover.

You show your employees this value by being open to feedback and encouraging the sharing of ideas, especially on work flows and firm culture. Feeling valued makes people feel more motivated to do their best. This may not be the corrective action you’re looking for in dealing with difficult staff members, but providing a better ecosystem for employees will raise performance all around.

7) Document and CYA

If at last it comes down to having to let the difficult employee go, a documentation of the key points of their bad behavior will help “cover you’re a**.” Not only does having no record make it more difficult to let them go, but often people don’t document because of a naïve hope that the difficult party will change—and the documentation may seem to be “too negative.” Not so: documentation is prudent. At best, you’ll have documentation you didn’t need. If so, file it away and go onto the next thing.

8) Simplify

Too much complexity can be overwhelming. Giving the problem more structure can give the struggling person a clearer approach to the situation and help take some of the pressure off. Get more specific. Make sure the offender understands what’s expected of them.

9) Some carrot and stick with a time frame

“If this doesn’t happen by this date, then this will happen…” This could be anything from losing eligibility for a promotion to getting the boot, but some negative consequence needs to happen. Yes, threats are so old school. That’s why they’re best as a last resort. Ultimately, without some negative impact ahead, why would they change?

10) Be clear and positive

Making tough decisions against crushing deadlines is often the reality of life in the workplace. You want everyone to thrive as best you can. You need to speak with intelligent, positive communication that values the expertise and of your team. Be intentional. What you don’t want is avoidable mistakes because of unclear directives. A lack of clarity can also ratchet up the stress, especially when tight deadlines are involved. A Harvard study noted that the more performance pressure increases, the more those involved will go into survival mode rather than being inspired to excel.

11) Be nice

To be feared is far better than to be respected: This is a myth not supported by evidence. Being a tough, distant boss doesn’t gain a leader loyalty nor drive productivity of employees. It appears that being nice is just better for business all around.

We also know that high stress at work makes staff less healthy.

The evidence also supports that leaders who show altruism and project warmth gain favor with their team and are more likely to be trusted by them. And while niceness can indeed be very good, make sure to maintain professional boundaries so that employees don’t take advantage of your pleasant demeanor.

12) Build a better team

We know that team-building can encourage friendships and this can be another way to increase performance and decrease turnover. But this may not work for everyone.

A third of your team probably won’t like team-building activities. Many would rather just stay at their desks as they may find many of the activities embarrassing or uncomfortable. It would probably be fair to say problem employees especially may not enjoy team-building activities.

But activities that can allow this reluctant person an opportunity to relax and unwind while still respecting their boundaries and personal obligations outside of work may prove to have positive results. Some of these activities could include group volunteering, team sports, and shared meals to celebrate birthdays or other special occasions.

13) A team of bots is not the answer

Also, according to the Harvard study, putting more pressure on your staff can create a variety of other “limiting processes.” These can push bad behaviors such as driving your teams toward a mob mentality where consensus and conformity—usually aimed towards the more charismatic of the group—and a focusing on common knowledge tend to emerge. If you’re looking to nurture expertise and critical thinking and make your staff into better employees, your objectives will not be served by squeezing them into hive thinking. When people are in a rush, they shift from learning and problem solving to just wanting to get the work done at any cost. This isn’t a circumstance that creates the best work.

14) Explain what the solution will look like

Give them the confidence of letting it be known that there’s a win possible. Tell them, “I still believe there’s a solution here…” then, “Here’s what that might look like.”

15) Offer a model of confidence

Emotions in the workplace can be infectious—especially those induced by stress. Put some calm and confidence into the air and let the team see that you believe that all is going to work out. If you team sees you being positive about the outcome, they will be optimistic, as well. This is the simplest trick for decreasing hysteria and anxiety. Even if you’re not truly confident in the end result, it doesn’t matter. You’re modeling. Calm, deliberate, decisive actions always win the day.

16) Manage what goes on in your head

Bad thoughts turn into bad words and actions. They can pollute your decisions. That goes for both the positive and the negative: Don’t sugarcoat the proceedings and don’t poison the well. Be fair and realistic. “I can’t believe what a total cheese nug this person is!” doesn’t help. Nor does, “Everything is going to be okay—you’ll see!” Try to be as fair a witness as you can be. Keep your thoughts about this as accurate as possible. Use a little mindfulness if you have to.

Here’s some better self-talk: “The behavior of this person is causing real problems for the team. I’ll do what I can to support their change. And if they don’t, I’ll need to find another solution—or they’ll have to leave.”

17) Manage what comes out of your mouth

Lesser managers will, out of frustration, be tempted to bad mouth the problematic employee. They will appeal for sympathy from co-workers and denigrate the offending person. Do not do this. Be a good manager, follow protocols, consult your HR Manager if you have one, and go by the book. This person may be a worthy vector for all your rage, but don’t lose your humanity over it. They’re still a person. And if it comes down to putting them out on the street again, work through your processes and figure out the proper path for termination. Remember: no matter what, they’re going to be on the losing end of any deal.

18) Set up consequences and then let them happen

Krampus is a half goat, half demon character of Eastern European folktales who’d come to punish children for bad behavior and carry them off in a sack. At some point, if nothing changes with your difficult employee, you may be required to go full Krampus: Set some consequences in place and then follow through with them. Often, managers will be tempted to cover for the difficult person or pick up the slack, the work needs to get done regardless, right? But in doing so, you’re only reinforcing the person’s perception that they don’t need to change.

Today, the conventional wisdom is “more carrot, less stick.” But denying a safety net for the troublesome person can also provide a valuable learning opportunity. It allows them to accept accountability and better feel the depths of the consequences.

19) Be courageous—do what needs to be done

There will be times that the end of the path of how to handle difficult employees is to fire them. Most people find that task one of the hardest things a manager is asked to do. (Others don’t, but chances are they’re not reading this list.) But if the situation calls for it, make sure it’s done right: no excuses, no putting it off, and don’t push it off onto someone else. Gird up your loins and get in there—it’s what the best people would do.

Also, if by some chance things do turn around—it’s possible—have the courage to accept that too. Often, being proved wrong takes more courage to admit—someone turns out to be salvageable when all along you thought they were not. So, you live and learn.

20) The importance of being earnest

If in the end you find the best way of dealing with a difficult associate is termination, then take assurance that such a decision can elevate an entire team. An employee who’s disrespectful and unproductive can affect the morale and output across a team, as much as 30%-40% according to one report.

It’s easy to see how impactfully addressing a problem employee can be on your organization: whether you can help them improve or if their issues are unfixable and termination is the only solution. Once done, you may want to reassess your hiring process and make whatever necessary changes to protect your workplace from situations where this happens again.

The rest of your team will thank you for it.