Productivity

How to deal with a difficult employee

Jeff Haden
Business Journalist

Jeff Haden is a bestselling ghostwriter, speaker, Inc. Magazine contributing editor, and LinkedIn Influencer

Jeff Haden
Business Journalist

Jeff Haden is a bestselling ghostwriter, speaker, Inc. Magazine contributing editor, and LinkedIn Influencer

Dealing with difficult staff can be a challenge. Jeff Haden explains why it could be you as much as them.

All the great bosses I know are optimistic – especially when it comes to their employees.  They don’t think about dealing with difficult employees. They naturally assume every employee will work hard, cooperate, encourage and help their peers… they instinctively see the good in everyone.

But occasionally the “good” is hard to spot in an employee. You know the type: the gossip, the pot-stirrer, the drama queen, the naysayer, or just the employee who can’t seem to meet standards of performance. While letting that person go is always an option, it’s definitely worth trying to get underperforming employees back on track.

Here’s how:

man standing sideways on steps

All the great bosses I know are optimistic – especially when it comes to their employees.  They don’t think about dealing with difficult employees. They naturally assume every employee will work hard, cooperate, encourage and help their peers… they instinctively see the good in everyone.

But occasionally the “good” is hard to spot in an employee. You know the type: the gossip, the pot-stirrer, the drama queen, the naysayer, or just the employee who can’t seem to meet standards of performance. While letting that person go is always an option, it’s definitely worth trying to get underperforming employees back on track.

Here’s how:

Have your ducks in a row

Except where zero-tolerance policy violations are concerned, disciplining and especially firing an employee should always be the last step in a reasonably structured process. Something along the lines of: Identifying sub-standard performance, providing additional training or resources, setting targets and timelines for improved performance, following up and taking further steps when progress is lacking… and documenting each step in writing.

Documentation not only protects your business, it also helps ensure the employee was given every chance to succeed.

Sound like a lot? It is, but having the right policies, procedures, and documents in place is absolutely essential. You can create your own system or use an employee management system like Workforce Guardian that gives you the tools – and the support – to ensure your policies and human resource processes are not only legal and compliant but also effective.

And if you don't have a paper trail, don't be tempted to go back and re-create one. Start now and follow your process.

Look for the root cause

Most employees want to do a good job; rarely does even the most difficult employee intend to perform poorly. So when someone’s under-performing, there are almost always underlying issues.

The employee who can’t seem to make decisions may be insecure or lack confidence. The employee who is too competitive with peers may just be wishing for greater recognition. The employee who won’t follow the rules may just be looking for a project they can lead and call their own.

Don’t just focus on the behaviors that need to change. Look deeper and spot the underlying motivations for those behaviors.

If you can’t figure it out, ask the employee. And then really listen to what they say: you might be surprised by what you learn, and hopefully you’ll find ways to help them overcome their challenge.

Set specific, frequent targets

Once you’ve identified areas for improvement, don’t just hope things will magically get better (wishing and hoping is the worst employee management strategy possible).

Set targets. Set parameters. Create a timetable. Make sure expectations are specific and clear.

And when you’re setting expectations, never compare the difficult employee to another employee. Employees failing to meet standards, targets, or behavioral expectations are one thing, but employees should not be let go just because they aren’t as capable as someone else. 

Plus, drawing comparisons between employees makes it possible for what should be an objective discussion to veer into the “personality zone,” a conversational black hole you will almost never escape.

Reinforce the why

We all like to feel we are part of something bigger. We all love to feel a sense of camaraderie that turns a group of individuals into a real team.

Make sure the difficult employee – and every employee – knows what you want to achieve for your business, for your customers, and possibly even your community.

Then help them understand how they play a major role in making that happen. Engagement starts with knowing what to care about and, more importantly, why to care.

Follow up frequently

Don’t just point out times when the employee fails to meet standards. Since your goal is to inspire great behaviors, work hard to find ways to praise and recognise positive performance as well.

Focus on giving feedback when the employee doesn’t meet standards, but focus twice as hard on giving feedback when he or she does. Sometimes all a difficult employee needs is a little more recognition and confidence.

While you want every employee to succeed, sometimes the situation can’t be fixed. Don’t let a difficult employee poison your workplace.

Creating a positive, productive workplace is the foundation of your job – so where difficult employees are concerned, make sure you do your job.

Your employees will thank you for it.

Healthy working relationships can be harmed with something as simple as an email.

Make sure you keep your online manners in check.

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