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How To Deal With Difficult Employees

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Posted by: David Garcia September 03, 2023

At ScoutLogic, we understand that there can be difficult employees in any organization or business. Even more, the fallout from a difficult employee can have a hugely disproportionate effect on other staff and productivity.

Spotting difficult employees before they sign a recruitment contract is ultimately the way to go, but this isn’t always possible or practical.

So, in this article, we’ll share how to spot a problematic employee in the workplace – not always as easy as you might think – and what employers can do to mitigate the impact and improve a challenging working relationship.

What Does a Difficult Employee Look Like in an Organization?

Poor Performance

Many reasons underpin poor performance, including issues at work such as a lack of resources or skillset to perform the required role. A lack of career progression or advancement opportunities has the same impact.

The employer can tackle some of these at source to manage or resolve the problem.

However, some underlying difficulties may be outside the employer’s control. Personal problems outside work coming into the workplace, such as money worries or difficulties at home, are harder to tackle.

Negative Attitude

Some people are naturally more negative personalities than others. 

While it takes all kinds of people in a workplace, a robust recruitment policy and interview technique, plus thorough background checks, help stop negative influences from getting across the employment threshold in the first place.

Situational interview questions are readily available online and can filter out candidates with less than positive attitudes.

Undermines Authority

Difficult employees are like awkward children in school; they may undermine authority and management, inciting a similar attitude in people around them. This behavior might be evident or subtly corrosive, like a drip-drip effect.

Sometimes, an employee undermining authority is unintentional or unconscious. It could be that they’re strong-willed or opinionated and don’t realize their behavior’s impact on other people.

7 Ways To Deal With Difficult Employees

When dealing with difficult employees, try to remember these 7 best practices:

  1. Avoid Focusing on Personality and Concentrate on Behavior
  2. Finding the Root Cause of the Problem
  3. Suggest Feedback
  4. Communicate Clearly
  5. Expectations and Outcomes
  6. Monitor Progress
  7. Keep the Advantage of Authority

Avoid Focusing on Personality and Concentrate on Behavior

In conversations about behavior, it’s essential to focus on the employee’s behavioral impact on others rather than being judgmental and accusatory about personality traits.

A badly planned or poorly conducted performance talk will make the original problem ten times worse.

It increases the likelihood of confrontation and widens the divide between employer and employee rather than building a bridge. It’s all about being supportive and reducing hostility and negative responses. 

Always base comments about behavior on specific examples. Rather like children, some people genuinely don’t understand when they’re being difficult or their behavior is inappropriate.

Finding the Root Cause of the Problem

If possible, an employer should try and ascertain the cause of the employee’s unwanted behavior. 

This is a delicate process as it could be a workplace issue directly related to their environment, role, or colleagues. It could also be personal; inquiries may be unwelcome and viewed as prying.

Finding the root cause does make it easier to solve the problem. The moral here is to know your team; this makes it easier to spot things going wrong early on.

According to a Gallup poll in 2022, only 32% of employees, including full and part-timers, engage with their work. 17% are actively disengaged. 

Disengaged workers are typically dissatisfied and will be less productive and much more likely to have an adverse impact on those around them. Things like a decline in work quality and periods of absence typify disengagement.

Proactive employee well-being protocols focusing on employee attitudes and satisfaction can head off many potential problems from the offset.

It’s worth investing in systems that promote and measure employee profitability, productivity, retention, and well-being, making for a happier workforce.

Proactive measures take the sting out of a challenging employee and minimize the fallout on those around them.

Suggest Feedback

Being open to feedback and creating systems whereby employees feel that they can comment on workplace issues and are being listened to will limit the build-up of frustrations.

This is sometimes called an ‘open door’ policy.

Workers must be able to trust their employers and feel they can speak openly and honestly. If necessary, employees must be able to report in confidence if their issues are with another staff member.

However, a feedback system is not enough if the employer doesn’t appear to be actively listening in a non-judgmental manner. Employees also need to see them taking proactive steps to resolve problems. 

Communicate Clearly

It’s easy to get embroiled in a head-to-head situation; an employer must avoid this at all costs as it makes it much harder to find a way forward.

It comes down to the old adage, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” Setting up a dialogue that the employee feels is non-confrontational and non-judgmental increases the employer’s chances of a favorable response.

Once the employee is receptive and cooperative, it’s easier for the employer to focus on specific examples of unwanted behavior and determine how this can change.

Expectations and Outcomes

The employer needs to be able to set out what they expect of the employee from now on, and we recommend putting it in writing. 

Create a template that explains what needs to change, how this is achievable, and a timeframe with staging posts for evaluation.

This document must include consequences for a failure to alter behaviors. If necessary, this exchange could be the beginning of a formal process to remove that employee, so it’s essential to record everything correctly in writing.

Monitor Progress

The employer needs to be able to monitor progress without the employee feeling that the employer is spying on them. 

Monitoring should be in the context of that employee achieving their stated goals, so employers must always be upfront and positive about it and transparent in how this evaluation will happen.

Feedback from colleagues is essential, and the timeframe should include regular 1:1 meetings with the employee. The employer must always report back on progress, which is a positive – success breeds success!

Keep the Advantage of Authority

Employers must always remain personally respectful and never lose their temper. A neutral stance and tone of voice are essential. Difficult meetings should be left for HR professionals with specific training to manage challenging situations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Effects Do Difficult Employees Have on the Workplace?

Difficult employees create a culture of negativity. A hostile environment impacts business productivity and output. If the company is public-facing, customer service can suffer too.

Difficult employees cause unrest in the workplace, and staff may leave either to avoid that person/people or because their perception of the employer has changed.

Final Thoughts

Prevention is always better than cure. Employers should weed out potential troublemakers at the recruitment stage rather than being stuck with a problematic employee for the duration.

Robust background checks can identify interviewees who have the potential to cause trouble further down the line, with red flags like inadequate or absent references.

Employers should couple rigorous checks with scenario-based assessment techniques for candidates who have made it through to the interview stage. This then hugely reduces the likelihood of a potential troublemaker slipping through the net.

ScoutLogic’s vast array of background check services takes all the worry out of recruitment – let us help today.

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