Managing difficult employees: 4 simple steps

As a people leader, developing the skills to recognise and deal with difficult employees is vital.

Managing people has lots of good days and, of course, some not so good days. Dealing with difficult employees can negatively impact you, your team and overall performance.

Dealing with employees who are not ‘doing the right thing’ is never an easy task. It takes awareness to recognise there is a problem and courage to do something about it.

Does this mean you will have a confrontational and argumentative discussion? Not necessarily, however, it will mean actions and steps will need to take place.

These events – and how you approach them – define you as a leader.

What is the best way to approach and deal with difficult behaviour?

Talk with the aim to listen – understand the real cause

ListenIf you want behaviours to improve you must have a clear understanding of the situation. This includes gaining an understanding of the employees’ point of view and what else might be going on for them. If their behaviour is completely out of character, then it’s likely they could have something outside of work that is affecting them. Or, it could be a misunderstood process, a personality clash with their colleague or another manager not being approachable.

“…see them as a human being first and don’t assume that they’re bad people.” – Simon Sinek

My point here: listen to what is actually going on. They will feel better and may even start acting differently – just from you listening to them.

Tip – if it’s an issue outside of work, support them with time off or the offer of professional counselling services.

Talk behaviour – Not attitude      

AttitudeImagine this – you pluck up the courage to talk with your difficult employee and it goes something like this –

You: “You have a bad attitude and it’s not acceptable.”

Difficult employee: “No I don’t, you just don’t understand me.”

You: … umm … err. Thanks..?

Basically, you just told them they have a character flaw and now things could be worse! The golden rule here is to talk behaviours not attitude.

  • What specifically did they do (or not do)?
  • When did they do it?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What words did they use?
  • How did it affect others?

I always provide examples when giving feedback. You must do this too. Examples make it easier for the employee to recall the situation and respond.

Let’s try your difficult conversation again…

You: “Leslie, I noticed that you were using social media on your work computer earlier today and the day before.” Or,

You: “Paul, I was told by others that you were mocking the Finance Manager this morning. Can you please explain your side of this?”

If you approach the conversation this way – it still takes courage. The benefit of this method is by being more specific and talking about behaviours, it allows the conversation to actually happen.

Tip – make sure you have these conversations in a private space

Document everything

DocuementI can’t say this loud enough – write down what was said and agreed.

If their [difficult] behaviour continues or it has happened in the past, it’s important to show a pattern of behaviour.

Documenting the following is vital –

  • what was their [specific] behaviour
  • how did you fill the gap between their actions and company behaviours?
  • the steps you took to address it, and
  • any supporting material such as complaints by others or notes on work not completed

Work with your companies HR team or performance management team throughout the process. These guys know the rules and will ensure you are protected along the way. Having frequent and clear conversations with performance management experts, who also act as your trusted guide, is important.

Take care of yourself

Fish in bowlTaking note of your own mental state before, during and after managing a difficult employee is important.

Before you address the person involved, make sure you are in the right mood and frame of mind. If you are angry about what they did to the team or how they let you down – cool off before approaching them.

During your meetings with them, stick to the key points you made in your notes. This will help keep you on track and focused on the behaviours that need discussing.

Show your support by asking them how you may be able to help them get back on track. I have never met anyone who came to work and said –

“I’m going to make a mistake on purpose today.”

Start by giving them a chance to talk about their side of things. This builds trust and invites them to open-up during the conversation.

The consequences after the process may lead to giving them a formal warning, placing them on a performance improvement plan or, at worst, dismissing them from the business.

Be courageous. All of these are difficult and likely to be the hardest part of your job. Don’t put it off or make someone else do it – do it now and do it right.

I guarantee you will learn from the experience and know that you have done your best in a tough situation – well done.


Managing difficult employees is not easy – it’s hard.

It is a skill, and, like all other skills, it can be learnt. Learning by doing is always the best method and managing difficult employees is no exception.

Before any situations arise, make it a normal part of your journey to have open and honest conversations with your employees. This builds rapport now and can pay dividends if situations turn sour.

In my experience, if you have a good rapport with someone, it helps both parties to participate in a difficult conversation and makes them…less difficult!

Final tip – the best outcome for everyone is for the difficult employee to turn around, improve and be a valuable member of your team. Make this your goal right from the start – the results might surprise you.

What’s your best tip on managing difficult employees?

Keep on learning,


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