How to Deal With a Difficult Employee

Man on the phone at the office
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It is inevitable in your role as a manager that you will have to deal with employees who earn the label "difficult." Instead of ignoring the situation as many managers do, it is essential for you to take action to remedy the problem. After all, you own forming and maintaining an effective working environment.

Effective managers use a deliberate approach similar to planning and delivering a constructive feedback discussion, for dealing with difficult employees. Here are some tips on how to best deal with a difficult employee.


Watch Now: 9 Tips for Handling a Problem Employee


While action is essential, it is important to momentarily hit the pause button and evaluate the situation so that you are armed with a current, clear perspective. Observe the employee in different settings. Look for behaviors that introduce stress or toxicity into situations. Observe how others respond to the employee. Strive to isolate the one or two behaviors that others are complaining about to you.


Resist the temptation to respond to complaints or innuendo without checking out the situation yourself. Talk to the people involved. Collect all the facts you can before you act. And don't discount that occasionally, everyone has a bad day or week. If a normally easy-to-work-with employee is suddenly uncooperative and uncommunicative, consider that there may be extenuating circumstances.

Develop a Plan

Based on your observations, assess whether the situation merits coaching, counseling, training or discipline.

  • Coaching emphasizes specific behavior modification.
  • Counseling focuses on problem behaviors and comes with implications, including, "You need to cease doing (behavior), or, you will be placed on a performance program and potentially fired." These situations often turn into coaching activities.
  • Training supports skills development and helps fill knowledge gaps. 
  • Discipline reflects an immediate improvement program with implications. Make certain to involve your human resources team.

Your time invested in thinking through where you want the situation to go will pay dividends during the actual discussion. Many managers script out the opening sentence of their discussions with the employees just to make certain to frame the situation properly for all parties.

Confront the Problem

Don't put it off. It may not be pleasant, but it's an important part of your job. It will not "fix itself". It can only get worse. You have planned this confrontation. Now you need to execute. And remember, everyone on your team is watching and waiting. 

Focus on the Behaviors, Not the Person

Your goal is to develop a solution, not to "win". Focus on the inappropriate behavior; don't attack the person. Don't assume the inappropriate behavior is caused by negative intent. It may be from fear, confusion, lack of motivation, personal problems, etc.

Try to Draw out the Reasons Behind the Behavior

As you talk with the difficult employee, actively listen to what they say. Stay calm and positive. Ask open-ended questions that can't be answered in one or two words. Don't interrupt. When you do respond to the difficult employee, remain calm. Summarize back to them what they just said, "So what I understand you are saying is...," so they know you are listening to them. If you can find out from the difficult employee what the real source of the inappropriate behavior is, you have a much better chance of finding a solution.

Develop the Solution Together

The desired result of confronting a difficult employee's inappropriate behavior is an agreed upon solution. You know that this inappropriate behavior will continue unless you and the employee agree on a solution. The employee needs to know what is inappropriate about their behavior and they also need to know what the appropriate behavior is so that they can adjust their approach.

Plan Follow-up and Repeat as Necessary

Minor problems, like being late for work, you may be able to resolve with a simple chat in your office with the employee. Others may require more than one confrontation before a solution can be reached. Be patient. Don't always expect instant results. Aim for continuous improvement rather than trying to achieve instant success.

Know When You Are in Over Your Head

Sometimes the underlying issue with a difficult employee will be beyond your capabilities. The employee may have psychological problems that require professional help, for example. Learn when to keep trying and when to refer the employee to others for more specialized help. Your company may have an EAP or you may need to use resources from the community.

Know When You Are at the End

While the goal is always to reach a mutually acceptable solution that resolves the difficult employees' inappropriate behavior and keeps your team at full strength, sometimes that is not possible. When you reach an impasse and the employee is not willing to change his or her behavior then you need to begin terminations procedures in accordance with your company's policies.

The Bottom Line

Dealing with difficult employees is never fun. Nonetheless, it is part of your responsibility. A timely, deliberate approach to navigating these awkward situations will help you succeed.

Updated by Art Petty