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Back on Track: 5 Tips for Managers Dealing with Difficult Employees

Dealing with difficult employees

You know the type: the employee who’s always late to meetings, who flakes out on important projects, who sports a bad attitude as casually as a baseball cap. Difficult employees come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be a drain on their fellow coworkers, managers and the business as a whole.

It’s an age-old problem that nearly every seasoned supervisor has dealt with at some level. The easy solution would be to fire these exasperating employees, but it’s not always that simple. Depending on office politics, surrounding employees and life circumstances, many managers get stuck on the brink of dismissing difficult employees but are, for whatever reason, unable to.

So how does a good supervisor handle an employee whose attitude or skills are not up to snuff with the caliber of the company? We enlisted several managers who’ve been there and compiled their best advice for dealing with difficult employees.

5 expert tips on dealing with difficult employees

1. Address the problem & provide feedback

While it can be tempting, sweeping issues under the rug is usually not beneficial. The only thing worse than an employee doing something wrong is an employee who has no idea they’re doing something wrong. This is why meaningful feedback is crucial. The beautiful thing about confrontation and constructive criticism is that it creates clear boundaries where there may be miscommunication, passive aggression or confusion.

“Seek to understand and don’t be afraid to understand,” says Becca Garvin, executive recruiter atFind Great People, Int’l. “If you want a resolution, you have to acknowledge and confront the problem – the sooner the better.”

The first key to this kind of confrontation is to do it in person. Email and texting can cause a host of miscommunication. But a face-to-face encounter will help eliminate any misconstrued meanings. Setting up a meeting where you calmly address the issue and invite open communication will pay dividends in the end.

2. Get to the root of the issue

Sometimes a problem isn’t always what it seems on the surface. Bad behavior can stem from a variety of issues, including problems with fellow co-workers, issues at home and a variety of other unrelated difficulties.

Instead of attacking your employee with accusations, find out what’s really bothering him or her. Ask meaningful questions and be honest about what you’re seeing. If it’s truly something your staff member can change, be clear about expectations and consequences. If you discover the problem is something you can fix, such as a poor work environment, lack of training or a way you manage the team, consider the changes you can make.

“It’s important to remember that from a 30,000 foot view, things appear differently than they do when you are on the ground floor,” Garvin says. She goes on to stress the significance of diagnosing the true problem.

3. Make a plan of action & be encouraging

“A clear plan of action should be developed which addresses the issues and details the steps to be taken in overcoming them,” says Justine Miller, HR consultant at The Stir Group, LLC. “A good tip is to have the employee contribute to these steps, as evidence shows that an employee who has participated in devising the solution is more likely to act in a manner to positively achieve it.”

Encouraging staff members and reminding them of their value can go a long way in making a sullen, struggling employee change his or her ways. Once again, good communication is a must. Your team will flounder if you’re not straightforward about what you expect of them.

“Be clear about goals and expectations and help employees see how their work contributes to the success of the entire company,” says Dominique Jones, chief people officer at Halogen Software.

Be motivational and encouraging when searching for a solution to whatever problem your employee is causing and encourage them to take ownership again. Don’t treat those under you as if they are children—stay humble and ask them to be your allies in fixing the issue at hand.

4. Don’t be afraid to cut ties

Sometimes employees don’t respond well to your clear communication and continue to disrespect workplace rules and dampen the atmosphere with negative comments. So how do you know when it’s time to throw in the towel?

Garvin sheds some light in this area, suggesting when dealing with the employee is costing you more time and effort than the employee contributes to your team, it might be time to call it quits. If the employee is bringing down the morale of the rest of the team, that’s another red flag.

While this can be a tough truth, the overall health of your team has to be your top priority. Consult with fellow leaders if you need help making this decision, but don’t wait too long to cut ties. If you’ve already confronted the staff member, clearly laid out expectations and given him or her a chance to correct the offending behavior, you’ve done all you can do. Keeping him or her around would set a bad precedent to the rest of your employees.

“If you can no longer focus on what your job entails and what you do best, then you start risking long-term loss that is likely not worth the retention of one person,” Garvin says.

5. Choose wisely up front

As Jim Collins famously stated in his popular book, Good to Great, make sure you get the right people on the bus. If you do have to let an employee go, consider what you need to look for in the next staff member you hire.

“Put employees in roles that hit their strengths and talents,” says Loretta Cipkus Dubray, CEO of Global Clinical Connections, LLC.

Hiring the right employees from the get go will help you avoid getting stuck in a constant cycle of firing and rehiring. While it’s inevitable that you’ll probably have to let one or two employees go in your career as a manager, starting right from the beginning can go a long way in decreasing those odds.

Do you feel equipped?

Dealing with difficult employees is never a walk in the park, but it comes with the territory of being in management. Luckily, that’s only one aspect of the job. Working as a manager can be an extremely rewarding and exciting job for those who have what it takes. Excellent managers carry a helpful arsenal combined of learned behaviors and innate skills.

If you have management aspirations, do yourself a favor and check out our article: What Makes a Great Manager?


Lauren Elrick

Lauren is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys helping current and potential students choose the path that helps them achieve their educational goals.

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