5 Tips on Managing Difficult Employees

managing difficult employees

For most employers, dealing with difficult employees is almost inevitable. Since employees are human, they can occasionally demonstrate inappropriate or undesirable behavior, which must be addressed sooner or later. The stakes are simply too high to ignore these behaviors or pretend they don’t exist.

Why? Think about the repercussions of having one or more difficult employees in your workforce.

A problem employee can cause serious damage to your brand.

When a customer walks away unhappy with their treatment, “this makes them associate poor service and bad quality with the brand,” notes Great People Inside. A “damaged reputation takes years to bounce back from and in some extreme cases, it is irreversible.”

A difficult employee can negatively impact morale in the workplace.

An individual with a poor work ethic, a negative outlook; someone who is a chronic complainer. These employees can sap the initiative of others around them. “This toxicity can impact your entire team,” according to AllBusiness, “and if this difficult employee recruits like-minded employees, the poison can spread and infect your business.” This, in turn, can lead to “performance issues, service concerns, product defects, and potential legal action” if and when wrongdoing occurs. In a worst-case scenario, this problem employee triggers an exodus of valued workers from an organization.

A difficult employee disrupts workflow and productivity.

Any employee who causes a disruption or otherwise impedes the flow of work can also inflict significant harm on the organization. Such employees demand “special treatment” from managers or HR. This results in a loss of time and resources. The longer the disruption goes on, the greater the potential damage to both the business and its brand.

Take action to fix the problem

One or more difficult employees in the workplace represents a potentially serious threat to the company’s well-being. That’s why it’s important to take action, including the following:

1. Don’t let the situation fester.

Sometimes owners or managers know a problem exists with a particular employee, but either ignore it or just pretend it doesn’t exist. This might be the worst strategy to employ under the circumstances. Bad behavior rarely goes away on its own. If it’s allowed to fester, it’s almost certain to spread to other employees as well.

2. Address behaviors, not personality.

When it becomes clear that something’s wrong, have a private conversation with the employee and objectively review the situation. The focus should be on specific examples of undesirable behavior, not an indictment of the individual themselves. Sometimes a problem employee isn’t conscious of their actions negatively affecting others. Describe what he or she is doing wrong in a professional way. Don’t criticize their character. This is more likely to generate revised and improved behavior.

3. Be sensitive about the timing of your actions.

Finding the best moment to talk with the problem employee is important. As Talent Gear notes, an employee who is “currently highly emotional, vulnerable or otherwise unlikely to be able to hear and understand your concerns” probably won’t be moved by your intervention. In the same respect, “if you are too angry to have a calm discussion or to show any patience,” it’s best not to have the conversation at that time.

4. Provide focused coaching.

Look for ways to provide ongoing, structured coaching. Suggest more acceptable modes of behavior and allow time for the employee to adopt these suggestions. Also, be sure to document all encounters with the employee. It’s crucial to establish a history of your interactions, the offer to coach and repair any damage done thus far and other actions you or the employee take. Not only does this “paper trail” help to keep everyone on the same page, it may prove essential if and when any legal action occurs as a result of the difficult employee’s behavior.

5. Make the decision to terminate employment.

When all is said and done, there may be times when the best course of action is letting the problem employee go. It’s never ideal to have to terminate an individual’s employment, but putting it off only makes matters worse. As business owner Gene Marks notes on Small Biz Ahead, “in the instances where I did let someone go … I looked back months later and kicked myself that I hadn’t made the move a long time before I did.” Delays “not only caused more problems in the office, but also I wasn’t showing my existing employees the respect they deserve.”


Small business owners encounter many challenges, but having a difficult employee in their ranks is one challenge they must address directly and overcome. The health and well-being of the business depends on it.


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