Julie Tucker
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How to manage difficult employees

Managing difficult employees is a challenge many of us dread, but it’s inevitable you’ll have to deal with them at some point in your career. They tend to sap team morale, drain your energy and destroy productivity.

Once you’ve identified the difficult employees, it’s imperative they’re dealt with effectively from the outset. Put into place strategies to manage them properly, creating a more harmonious workplace for everyone.

Recognising a difficult employee

Look out for the behaviour signs that can signify a difficult employee. Maybe they don’t fulfil their responsibilities due to a lack of motivation, or they display a bad attitude continually.

Try to find the hidden reason behind their performance before taking action. It could be down to poor communication, so don’t write them off as being lazy. Maybe their work no longer challenges them, or they feel hampered by processes, or lack the specific skills needed to perform changing tasks. Perhaps they feel they have few opportunities for career development.

If the employee simply has a bad attitude, this can have the most damaging impact on the environment. Maybe they roll their eyes when you ask them to do something, turn up late, or seem disinterested when in meetings. Any cynicism and negativity displayed by one employee can quickly be passed on to others.

They may undermine your authority continually, making colleagues question your leadership abilities. If their bad attitude is obvious to clients, you could really be in trouble. You need to nip it in the bud way before it reaches this stage.

Of course, their attitude may be nothing to do with work. They may have a problem at home, or a health issue that is impacting other aspects of their life. A one-to-one meeting may help get to the bottom of this.

Dealing with the situation

As a manager, you must follow your own workplace policies when handling difficult employees. It’s beneficial to inform HR when dealing with a tough situation with an employee. The HR team can implement company policies for dealing with the situation. They are also trained to manage people and can advise you on how to proceed.

Have evidence of the behaviour you are questioning, so you can put it to the employee for their response. In all cases, you should listen to their feedback. It can contain insights for the company into how the management, workload and policies are perceived. Recognise the difference between destructive behaviour and constructive criticism.

Showing leadership means keeping your cool when dealing with problematic behaviour. Make sure your own behaviour models the values and company culture that you’re aiming to uphold, however frustrated you feel. You need to set the standard for other employees.

Listen carefully and without prejudice to ensure you understand fully what the disgruntled employee is saying. Sometimes, they just need someone to listen, understand and give some constructive feedback to help change their attitude. Research reveals more than 20% of employees fear their employer never listens to or acts on feedback – a source of great frustration.

Documenting findings and expectations

As a manager, you need to keep a clear record of your discussions. In a situation of conflict, your objective should be to defuse the situation and give clear feedback on the employee’s conduct in a calm and reasoned manner, with examples. Then, convey advice to help them change their behaviour. Document any expectations and required changes in behaviour and keep HR in the loop, as dictated by company policy.

Develop a plan establishing goals, the dates of regular progress evaluations and a timeframe. Make sure the employee is fully aware of this by giving them a written copy of the action plan. Note the consequences of failing to complete the action plan and make the necessary changes. In most instances, the employee will take this on board more seriously if they are aware of the consequences of not following the plan.

Although it can be difficult for those involved, if approached in the right manner, situations can be dealt with in a professional way, with the correct outcome for both parties.


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