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4 Difficult Employees and How to Handle Them

Dealing with difficult employees comes with the territory of running a business. While it may be tempting to ignore these issues and hope they resolve on their own, they can—and often do—get worse without intervention. To help you address these situations before they have a negative impact on productivity and morale, we've provided some examples of difficult employees as well as guidelines for helping them get back on track.

Difficult Employee Types:

#1: Shirking responsibility.

Employees who refuse to take responsibility when things go wrong, either blaming others or coming up with excuses, can be problematic. Taking responsibility for failures is a key part of making sure they don't happen again.

#2: The "star."

They may be highly productive, but they may also show up late to meetings, fail to apologize when they eventually do arrive, and then stare at their phone for the entire meeting. They know they're good at what they do and want everyone else to know it too. However, ignoring the issue because they're a "star" employee can set a bad example and lead to more serious problems down the road.

#3: The downer.

This employee complains all of the time and constantly expresses pessimism about new initiatives. While respecting personality differences is important, their attitude can spread and undermine company objectives.

#4: The know-it-all.

This employee has done it all and seen it all, at least in their view. They may be quick to dismiss other people's ideas, interrupt others during meetings, and are prone to "explain" things outside their area of expertise, often to someone who's an expert. This type of employee can make other employees reluctant to raise new ideas and may negatively impact collaboration.

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Addressing Difficult Employees:

Before a Problem Arises:

There are ways employers can help reduce the likelihood of difficulties presenting themselves. Some examples include:

  • Leading by example. Don't let your leaders be the "difficult" ones. Make sure you hold leaders accountable for demonstrating the conduct you expect.
  • Clearly communicating expectations. Clearly communicate workplace rules and procedures so that employees know exactly what's expected of them and what they can expect from the company. It's a best practice to maintain an employee handbook for this purpose. In addition, confirm expectations when setting performance goals and provide employees with feedback on a regular basis.
  • Fostering inclusivity. Make sure that your practices and decisions are free of bias, employees are paid fairly, you encourage employees to share ideas and feedback, and you take all complaints seriously. Train supervisors on all workplace policies and how to administer and enforce them. During staff meetings, tactfully intervene when an employee takes over the discussion, brings up an unrelated topic, dismisses or is otherwise rude to coworkers, or tries to take credit for someone else's idea.
  • Motivating employees. Employees who are engaged and motivated are typically less likely to create problems. To help promote an engaged workforce, consider:
    • Employee recognition programs.
    • Offering flexible work arrangements.
    • Giving employees autonomy in how they complete tasks.
    • Offering career development opportunities.
    • Providing challenging work assignments and capitalizing on employees' skills and knowledge.
  • Preparing employees for change. Give employees plenty of advance notice of upcoming changes and take the time to explain the reasons for each change and how a new procedure may positively impact the employee's work environment.
  • Improving teamwork. While some conflict in the workplace is inevitable, you can take steps to help reduce the likelihood of it turning into a problem. To help reduce conflict and encourage collaboration among team members, clarify rules and expectations, clearly define roles, and facilitate team-building activities.

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After a Problem Arises:

There are ways employers can diplomatically and effectively address difficult employees. When an employee isn't meeting expectations:

  • Seek to understand the issue. Before you meet with the employee, make sure you have a full understanding of the situation and have made an accurate and impartial assessment of the facts.
  • Meet with the employee. Meet with the employee in private and have a conversation with them. Be respectful but be clear about where they're falling short, how it's impacting the company, and your expectations for improvement. Give them an opportunity to speak and/or ask any questions and close the meeting by confirming that the employee has fully understood what was discussed.
  • Document the discussion. Document the meeting, including the date and substance of the conversation, and retain a record of it in the employee's personnel file.
  • Follow-up. Follow-up with the employee to see how they're doing. If their performance/behavior hasn't improved, further disciplinary action may be necessary.

Note: During the meeting, the employee may reveal information that can trigger certain obligations. For example, if the employee discloses that the reason for their change in behavior or performance is because they're a victim of sexual harassment, the employer should launch a prompt investigation into the allegations. Or, if the employee reveals they have a disability, the employer may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation to the employee. In such cases, consider consulting legal counsel to determine your rights and obligations.

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When it comes to difficult employees, address the issue promptly to help prevent it from getting worse.


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