Dealing with difficult employees (8 tips to succeed)

June 9, 2021 - 16 min read

Dealing with difficult employees can be a headache.

a difficult discussion between employees

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What does a difficult employee look like?

Dealing with difficult employees: a practical guide

Solutions for handling a difficult employee

Dealing with difficult employees is an essential skill

It’s a challenge many leaders dread, yet you’ll inevitably have to deal with a difficult employee at some point.

Problematic employee behavior drains your energy, saps your team's morale, and destroys productivity.

That’s why leaders must know how to deal with difficult employees swiftly and effectively.

Let’s take a look at what a challenging employee looks like, as well as proven strategies and solutions for dealing with them.


What does a difficult employee look like?

In 2019, 79% of employees reported being disengaged in their work. 

Disengaged employees often exhibit difficult behavior as a result of their frustration.

Difficult employees are bad news for business owners. They can create a toxic work environment and lead to higher staff turnover, lower performance, and poor customer relations.

Below are three examples of what a difficult employee can look like at work.


Scenario 1: Missed expectations. The employee doesn’t fulfill their responsibilities

Poor performance at work could be due to a lack of ability or motivation, or both. It could also be the result of poor communication, misalignment, lack of resources, or something else entirely.

If an employee is performing poorly in their role, don’t write them off as lazy. There may well be a hidden reason behind their failure to deliver and lack of motivation.

It could be that their work no longer challenges them. They may care about making more of an impact and be frustrated by the lack of investment of others. They may feel constrained by policies and processes that don't improve the outcome. Alternatively, they may lack the specific skills required to perform their tasks. 

They may also feel there are no opportunities for career growth and development. 

On the other hand, their lack of motivation might have nothing to do with their work. 

They may have a problem in their health or personal life that is causing them difficulty in focusing and being effective performing their tasks.

Scenario 2: The employee has a bad attitude

Difficult employee behavior can affect your whole team. 

If a problematic employee has a negative attitude, it creates a toxic environment. Often, but not always, a bad attitude at work is passive rather than directly confrontational.

Maybe it is the not-too-subtle smirk or eye-roll, showing up late and being inattentive at meetings. Or maybe it is less concious: the hard-working employee who has become cynical and always sees the negative in every interaction or proposal. A bad attitude can be funny at first, but eventually it wears on everyone. A bad attitude and negative behavior disrupts the whole team and affects employee performance.

But that’s not all. If they also have a bad attitude when dealing with clients or vendors, they put your business and reputation at risk.

Scenario 3: The employee undermines your authority

When an employee undermines your authority, it disrupts employee morale and productivity. It can also make other employees doubt your leadership abilities. 

But not all employees who undermine authority do so with bad intentions. Sometimes employees undermine leaders because they have a perspective the manager can’t see. They may be so passionate about their perspective that they miss seeing how their communication style is undermining others.

In other cases, the employee’s disruptive behavior may be a deliberate attempt to undermine you. As a leader, knowing how to distinguish between the two will help you address the problem effectively.

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Dealing with difficult employees: a practical guide

If you’re dealing with a difficult employee, following these steps can help you resolve the situation.

1. Critique behavior, not people

When dealing with a problematic employee, it’s essential to focus on specific behavior, not personal factors. Your role is not to judge them. Not only could that lead to unproductive conflict, but it is unlikely to help resolve the behavior. 

The objective is to find a way to stop your colleague’s unacceptable behavior and help correct behaviors that make working with them unnecessarily difficult. Your role is to support them and look for solutions.

People aren’t always aware of how their behavior impacts their work and environment. Start by bringing it to their attention in a non-confrontational way. Assume good intentions if at all possible. Remember that not all difficult employees intend to be difficult.

Then, give them specific examples of their negative behavior to help them understand the problem.

2. Identify the causes of the problem

The reasons behind an employee’s behavior are unique to each person. This is why it’s necessary to identify the causes before addressing the problem.

It could be related to:

  • Their work
  • Relationships with other colleagues
  • Personal issues that prevent them from performing their job adequately

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to get to the root cause of the problem and resolve it.

3. Be open to feedback

Problematic behavior may be the result of the employee’s perception of and experience in their work environment. 

Managers must be open to receiving feedback. This could be about management style or any other problem your employee may have with the organization.

Create a safe space in which your colleague can express their opinions. 

Use active listening to make sure you understand what they’re saying. Listen to your employee’s side of the story without prejudice.

Sometimes a difficult person just needs someone to listen and understand them. This often helps change their attitude and behavior.


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4. Give clear directions

As a leader, it’s essential to deliver your instructions clearly in order to be effective.

In a conflict situation, you have two main objectives:

  • Get your colleague to lower their defenses.
  • Convey the information necessary for them to improve their behavior.

To achieve this, you must give clear and detailed feedback on the employee’s behavior, including concrete examples.

5. Write down expectations and specific consequences

Document any expectations and behavioral changes together with your colleague. 

Develop a plan establishing objectives, a timeframe, and regular progress evaluations. This way, you will both be on the same page.

It’s also important to document any consequences of failing to make the necessary behavior changes. 

In most cases, the person will take the matter more seriously if they have a clear plan and are aware of the consequences of not taking action.

6. Monitor progress

Once you have established your employee’s action plan, the next step is to monitor their progress. This will help them achieve their goals within the established timeframe.

Ways to monitor progress include:

  • Getting feedback from other coworkers
  • Evaluating the quality of their work
  • Having regular one-to-one meetings

Make written observations and reports for maximum transparency. At the end of the agreed period, use the reports to evaluate their success.

7. Plan ahead

An adequate and rigorous selection process can help prevent problems with difficult employees.

New candidates should undergo a background check. Hiring managers should investigate a candidate’s behavior in their previous work and reasons for leaving. 

Behavioral interviews can help interviewers spot red flags that may lead to difficult behavior further down the line.

8. Stay calm and show respect

Giving negative feedback or firing someone is never easy. Tensions flare, and people often get upset.

As a manager, it’s essential to stay calm and avoid judgments or criticisms. Maintain your body language and a neutral tone.

Focus on facts and maintain an honest, professional, and respectful attitude.

Sometimes people are difficult because they feel undervalued. You should get to the bottom of the cause of their behavior before taking drastic action.



Ready to unlock the potential in your organization?

Solutions for handling a difficult employee

Use these four solutions to find the best possible outcome for both the difficult employee and the organization.

1. Talk to human resources

Managing truly difficult employees is an interpersonal issue. Therefore, it’s best practice to inform HR when facing a difficult situation with an employee. 

This has two advantages. First, if the HR team is aware of the problem, they can implement company policy for dealing with such situations.

Second, they are professionals who specialize in managing people. This means they can advise you on how to handle a difficult conversation with your employee.

2. Consider your role in the problem

If a difficult employee is undermining your authority, ask yourself the following questions. They will help you determine the intention behind your employee’s behavior:

  • Am I aware of my teammate’s workload?
  • Does the employee have a perspective that I can’t see?
  • Is the employee making any valid points?

If you suspect your employee is undermining you on purpose, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Does the employee undermine me by doing their work differently than agreed?
  • Does the employee undermine me behind my back?
  • Does the employee undermine me in front of clients, vendors, or other colleagues?

In these cases, it’s important to listen to the employee’s feedback, as it could contain valuable insights for the organization.

You should also learn the difference between constructive criticism and destructive behavior.

Show leadership by keeping your cool when dealing with problematic behavior from an employee. Model the values and company culture that you wish to see in your colleagues.

company-culture-difficult employees

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3. Address their lack of motivation

When dealing with an unmotivated employee, start by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Does the employee have too much or too little work?
  • Is the employee bored and in need of a new challenge?
  • Does the employee have the necessary skills required for the role?

Often, you can solve a lack of employee motivation by: 

  • Adjusting their job description
  • Relieving them of a heavy workload
  • Providing training

In other cases, a lack of motivation can lead to disruptive behavior and create a toxic work environment. 

4. Know when it’s time to let them go 

No one likes terminating someone’s employment. 

But if your employee’s negativity and bad behavior continue, you must know when to take more drastic action.

Consult your HR department for advice and information regarding company policy on letting people go.

Dealing with difficult employees is an essential skill

Any leader or aspiring leader needs to learn how to deal effectively with difficult employees.

The key is to take a calm and rational approach to the situation, analyzing all the influencing factors before taking action.



Published June 9, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Head of Insights

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