How to Deal With Difficult Employees

Manager engaging with an employee over a difficult topic


Managing would be easy if it weren't for the people! Of course, people are our greatest assets and we need to learn to leverage their talents and navigate a few of the challenges they occasionally present.

In workshops and training programs, at least three of the top issues managers regularly describe as difficult to deal with, include how to give effective constructive and positive feedbackhow to motivate employees, and how to deal with difficult staff. Here are some ideas for the third challenge identified above, dealing with difficult employees.

Do Your Homework

Step back and ask yourself, “What’s going on that’s caused me to label this employee as difficult?” It’s most likely poor performance (i.e., sales are down) or some kind of behavioral issue (falling asleep in a meeting). Gather all the data you can – get input from other sources if you can. It’s like detective work – you’re gathering evidence to be able to convince yourself first, then the employee.

Then, write an outline of what you want to say and how you want to say it. If it’s serious enough, you’ll want to involve your Human Resources staff. HR deals with people issues on a regular basis and can advise and assist you. Schedule a meeting – allow an hour – in a private location (closed door office or conference room).

Finally, step back and check your motivation. The objective of this discussion should be to truly help the employee – not to punish them, or let off steam just to get it off your chest. Having the right frame of mind going into the discussion will set the tone and make all the difference.

Explain the Difficulty and Whether It's Performance Issue or Behavior Related

In a calm and conversational manner, explain to the employee what the performance issue or behavior is and why it concerns you. There are a couple models for doing this:

  • SBR (Situation, Behavior, and Result): “In our meeting this week, you fell asleep. I had to wake you up and embarrass you in front of your peers.”
  • BFE (Behavior, Feeling, and Effect): “When you fell asleep in our meeting, I felt like you were not interested in what I had to say. That sets a poor example for the rest of the team.”

However you do it, you’re basically helping the employee understand what exactly you are concerned about and why it concerns you. Of course, if you have already communicated your performance expectations, the discussion should not be a surprise to the employee.

Ask for Reasons and Listen

This is where you give the employee a chance to give their side of things. Ask question open-ended questions – but don’t interrogate.

The key here is to really listen — for facts and feelings. There may be some legitimate reason for the problem; there usually is, at least from the employee’s perspective. Understanding the real underlying causes will help you and the employee do the next step.

Solve the Problem

That is the whole point of the discussion, right? Eliminate the causes and make the problem go away. It’s also a coaching opportunity for the employee to learn and develop. This should be a collaborative discussion. In fact, it’s best to ask for the employee’s ideas on solving the problem first. People support what they create. The employee’s idea may not be as good as yours, but they’ll be more likely to own it and have success implementing it. If you’re not confident the employee’s idea is going to work, you can always add your own as an additional idea.

Ask for Commitment and Set a Follow-Up Date

Summarize the action plan, and ask for the employee’s commitment. Then make sure to set and agree on a follow-up date to check in on progress. That way, if the initial ideas are not working, you can come up with additional ideas. You also let the employee know you’re not going to let it slide.

Express Your Confidence and List Possible Consequences

If this is just the first discussion and not a serious infraction, then there’s no need to mention consequences. if not, then you’ll need to make sure you clearly describe what will happen if there is insufficient improvement in performance or if the behavior does not improve.

Either way, end it on a positive note — by expressing your confidence that the solutions you’ve both come up with will work. I realize this is hard to do if you don’t sincerely mean it; if that’s the case, then don’t say it. After the meeting, document the discussion, and keep it in your employee file. Then, make sure there’s follow-up.

The Bottom Line

A lot of good employees mess up now and then. At some point in our careers, we all do. If you follow this process, you’ll get most of them back on track before it gets out of hand.