What are the Best Ways of Dealing with Difficult Employees?

A. Ribken

There are several types of difficult employees who can make the work environment miserable and unproductive for everyone in the workplace. The personalities involved may be varied, but there are basic actions helpful in diffusing most situations. These include acknowledgment of the problem, listening to all concerns and identifying the problem, and providing constructive feedback when dealing with difficult employees.

Ignoring a difficult employee won't make the problems go away.
Ignoring a difficult employee won't make the problems go away.

Some people feel if the problem is ignored, it will go away. The simple truth is, like most problems, ignoring the issue of dealing with difficult employees often leads to more problems. The best course of action is to acknowledge there is a problem and implement a plan to ease concerns. Getting to the bottom of the issue as soon as possible can lead to a smooth and swift resolution.

Difficult employees might shrug their responsibilities off onto others.
Difficult employees might shrug their responsibilities off onto others.

A supervisor or manager should research the problem personally instead of relying on the word of another employee. Listening skills are very important at this stage to get the full story and to understand exactly what the issues are. The manager should address the problem calmly, allowing the employee time to respond. Clear examples of the problems experienced should be provided, remembering to address the actions and not the personal aspects of the person involved.

Identifying the personality of the employee in question is a key component to dealing with difficult employees. Perfectionists will often take criticism personally, whereas unproductive employees may not acknowledge constructive criticism at all unless clear examples and expectations are shown. Documentation and follow-up are also important when dealing with difficult employees, especially if termination is considered.

Termination is an option, but research has shown it is more cost effective to try and resolve difficulties in the workplace rather than hiring and training a new employee. Some coaching may be required in order to help the employee in identifying the problem and to give them tools to change their behavior. When dealing with difficult employees, managers should remember that everyone can occasionally have a bad day. It is when the bad days become a pattern and affect the productivity of others that actions need to be taken.

Although many people may feel defensive when problems are addressed, providing constructive feedback can help the employee improve his or her work performance. Patience and feedback can help the employee to get back on track and become more productive. This in turn will serve as an example to other supervisors or managers seeking ways in dealing with difficult employees.

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Discussion Comments


Newsrooms are usually filled with characters, and some are worse than others. Because of their usually informal nature, it can be easier to deal with some difficulties than others.

I have a reputation of being able to get along with just about everybody. I can deal with a hothead -- I walk away. I can deal with loudmouths -- tell them to lower their voices and walk away. I can even deal with the very odd quirks that walk through the door every day.

What nearly killed me was the woman who sat across from me for 15 years. She was thin-skinned and feeling perpetually slighted, picked on and persecuted. Yes, she was also a little paranoid. She would listen to phone conversations and would explode if she heard something she thought might be offensive. One afternoon, I was talking to a co-worker who shared her first name who called in sick. I said something like, "Feel better soon Suzie" (not the real name, of course). When I hung up, Suzie across the way started in on me. "I heard you say my name! Why were you saying my name? You have a problem, you say it to my face!" This woman is 55 years old and ranting like a fifth-grader!

The only way to deal with her was to hope the boss heard what was going on and would tell her to knock it off. Finally, she found another job, to the intense relief of everyone in the office.

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