Working with Difficult Employees: 5 Strategies Every Manager Should Know

You’re not alone. During their career, every manager has worked with a difficult employee. Despite their skills, experience, and glowing resumé, they are not meeting your expectations. Their argumentative comments are not only slowing down progress on team projects, but they are poisoning the company culture and trusting relationships that you have worked hard to build with your employees.

An employee exhibiting a poor attitude and work ethic can cause a rift within your team. Like a cancer, their attitude and behaviors can spread to others, undermining your authority as a leader and destroying team morale. Addressing problematic behaviors in the workplace should be a top priority. However, managers may be tempted to avoid these awkward conversations because they are uncomfortable or are unsure how to address the situation. Knowing how and when to step in is crucial to avoiding long-term problems.

When is an employee challenging?

Not all difficult employees look or act the same. The challenges that they present and the underlying causes of their behavior vary from person to person. Here are three common traits of challenging employees.

1. Lack of Respect for Authority

Managers thrive when their employees respect them and trust their judgment. Some employees, through their behavior or verbal expressions, exhibit a lack of trust in their leaders. Questioning your decisions or approach to a problem may cause other employees to doubt your leadership or abilities. This type of behavior can feel like a direct personal attack even when that is not the intention.

Expressing a contrasting viewpoint can be misconstrued as questioning one’s judgment, especially when expressing a strong opinion. The intent and the resulting outcome are both dependent on the methods employed. It is important to remember that their perspective may offer additional insight if offered constructively.

2. Pervasive Negativity

Stressful situations in the workplace can cause employees to have negative feelings or thoughts about projects, deadlines, or even coworkers. These attitudes, if expressed openly, can cast a dark cloud over the whole team. Negativity in the form of eye rolls, smirks, tardiness, sarcasm, inattentiveness, or sighs are obvious cues to the rest of the team. Constant negativity affects the morale of other team members and their ability to work together effectively.

If this same attitude carries over to interactions with clients and vendors, the consequences can be damaging to your business relationships and reputation.

3. Under-Performing

The success of any company depends on every employee performing his or her task to the best of their ability. Project tasks are interdependent, and the work of each person is vital to the project’s success. Employees who do not fill their responsibilities as expected become a weak link in the organization.

It might seem that such an employee is disengaged and choosing not to do their work. However, a wise manager will explore the situation further to determine the underlying factors contributing to the problem.

Finding Resolution

1. Diagnose the Root Cause

How an employee performs at work and interacts with others may appear to be a deliberate attempt to undermine and frustrate. However, many individuals are often unaware of how their behavior impacts others. Before you make accusations or impose consequences, seek to understand the situation. Ask about their workload. Is it too much? Perhaps their work is not challenging enough or they lack the skills to keep up.

In some cases, the cause may be entirely unrelated to their work. A challenging personal problem outside of work may be causing stress and affecting their ability to focus on work-related tasks. In these circumstances, allowing an employee to confide in you and feel like they are being heard can be the first step in identifying a solution. Actively listen for ways that you can provide support moving forward.

2. Focus on Behavior

Conversations about problem behaviors at work should focus on the undesirable behaviors and not the employee. Personal judgments can quickly make an individual feel defensive and make the situation tense.

Your tone, word choice, and body language will set the stage for the conversation that will follow. Begin by assuming your employees have good intentions because most do. Keep your tone of voice calm and level. If you get emotional and raise your voice, your employee is likely to do the same. Maintaining neutral body language throughout the conversation will help to keep everyone at ease.

3. Set Clear Expectations

You may be tempted to gloss over some infractions to focus on others. While it is often wise to pick your battles, tolerating poor behavior will not resolve the issue and will cause you further frustration. Resolving the issues at hand requires managers to provide clear feedback and direction.

Writing down your expectations and creating a plan for improvement shows your commitment to working with your employee. Ensure that the goals you set are measurable. Consistently follow-up by asking coworkers for feedback, evaluating the quality of their work, or meeting with them one-on-one. Accurately, document their progress over the coming months.

4. Involve HR

Members of the human resources department are experts in dealing with people. They can be a useful resource for dealing with problematic employees. They can offer advice on having difficult conversations or advise you about company policy regarding terminating employees. While termination is less than ideal, sometimes it is the best course of action to preserve your team and keep business moving forward.

5. Recruit Well

Professional job recruiters understand the importance of hiring employees that will support your company culture and use their skills and abilities to contribute to the success of your organization. Their thorough recruitment strategies can help identify attitudes and behaviors capable of disrupting progress early in the recruitment process. With experts at the helm, you can avoid the hassle of addressing problem work habits and behaviors with employees under your leadership.

It may not be possible to avoid difficult employees entirely. However, armed with the proper skills, you can often help employees modify their attitudes and behaviors to become a valuable, contributing member of your team.