7 Ways to Handle a Difficult Employee

In a perfect world, the workplace would consist of individuals working symbiotically toward a common goal. In the real world, the fact is that you will end up with a difficult employee. While learning to deal with difficult people may not be at the top of your “to do” list as a hiring manager, it is an essential skill — both in the workplace and throughout life. Read on to learn the top ways HR managers can deal with difficult employees and promote productivity in the workplace.

1. Assess the Situation

Not all difficult people are created equally. While some are difficult due to poor performance others are difficult due to misconduct. Your first step is to determine the nature of a difficult employee’s difficulties: poor performance mandates a very different response than misconduct.

2. Have Words

Giving feedback may be uncomfortable, but it’s also necessary. Think about it this way: how can you expect an employee to improve if he/she is unaware of the problem? A quiet, respectful message is more effective than a confrontational one so keep your anger and frustration in check. This is also an opportunity to offer support while preventing matters from escalating.

An employee should leave this meeting understanding what he/she needs to do to meet company expectations. You should leave the meeting prepared to take the next steps if the problem doesn’t improve.

Be sure to listen: while you may be frustrated when dealing with an underperforming performer, the best shot at improving the situation involves understanding the employee’s point of view.

3. Be Professional

Badmouthing a problematic employee doesn’t just make you look bad, it also poisons the workplace well. Not only will others base their perceptions on what you have to say, but trash talking employees fosters a culture of disrespect and distrust.

4. Document, Document, Document

Write down every problem and interaction with the difficult employee. While this may seem negative, it’s the most prudent and protective measure. If you eventually have to let the employee go, you will be very grateful for this paper trail.

5. Have a System…

Most companies don’t have a “one strike and you’re out” policy for performance and attendance related issues. Instead, they establish a predetermined series of corrective steps. Typically, a verbal warning is followed by a written warning. If the difficulties continue, a final written warning may be in order.

While these disciplinary action model should guide your actions, keep in mind that the specifics may vary depending on the role and tenure of the employee.

6. …And Stick to It

When an employee fails to respond to corrective actions, follow the next logical disciplinary step. This protects you and your company, while also helping the employee to understand the severity of the situation.

When preparing documentation, use clear and incontestable verbiage. In most cases at this point, an employee with a bad attitude will correct behavior or elect to move on before risking the next corrective — and final — action.

Your prompt response and follow-through also demonstrates to other employees that you can be relied on to act during a negative workplace situation.

7. Accept the Inevitable

Sometimes the most challenging part of dealing with a difficult employee is accepting the inevitable. Firing is the flip side of the hiring logistics coin. At some point, it may become obvious that things aren’t going to turn around. The best hiring managers act without delay when they realize an employee is not right for the company.

While these tips for dealing with difficult employees may not be comfortable or easy, they are essential. And consider the bright side: the sooner you learn to deal with difficult employees, the more pleasant and functional your workplace will be.

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