People First Personnel

Roadmap for Handling Difficult Employees


Any place where humans gather together has the potential for some kind of conflict, and business is no exception. In fact, workplace conflict and disgruntled employees are a common issue that has to be overcome by leadership.

Strong personalities on a work force can do wonders for the bottom line, but it also means there will be an inevitable clash at some stage. There are also underperforming employees who need motivating in the right way, as well as occasional negative attitudes which sap the morale of everyone around them.

Handling such difficult employees effectively is crucial as their behaviour will ultimately affect the wellbeing and performance of the whole team. The best approach is a proactive one, with strategic steps taken to minimise the conflict, address the issues and devise a solution.

Knowing exactly where to begin can be difficult, especially if the issues causing conflict are sensitive ones. You must be fair and supportive, while ensuring any solution is sustainable and benefits everybody.

To help, here is a simple roadmap laying out the steps necessary to handle difficult employees and ensure any conflict is resolved quickly and effectively.

Step 1 – Assume Personal Responsibility

It is easy to identify the actions of a difficult employee as the reason for the conflict, but usually there are deeper reasons which have caused or contributed to the problem. It is important for leaders to recognise that they themselves may have a role to play in the creation of the conflict.

Such workplace conflicts or poor performances can be a product of the work environment. As a leader tasked with identifying a solution to the problem, you must reflect honestly on the contributing factors and your role in them.

This will then open up the way for you to assume personal responsibility for the issue in order to avoid anointing a potentially good employee as a scapegoat. If there are good reasons behind their poor performance or difficult behaviour, then properly understanding the root cause will be the key to implementing the solution.

Step 2 – Examine the Root Causes Together

A significant amount of workplace conflict arises from stress, which can be caused by excessive workloads, a lack of necessary skills, poor training, as well as wider mental health and wellbeing issues either at work or at home. This stress can then manifest as repeatedly missed targets, inter-personal problems between colleagues or even issues with client relationships.

The next step – after reflecting on how leadership and the work environment may have played a part in the conflict – is honest and open communication with the difficult employee. As a leader, you must work with the employee to gain a full understanding of their perspective so you can identify the root cause of the issue.

Ask questions about how things can be improved, and what would make the employee feel less stressed and more confident and capable. If the root cause is something in the employee’s home life, then communication about how they feel when they arrive at work and throughout the day will help reveal what is required for the next step.

Step 3 – Set Measurable Goals for Improvement

The key to this step is the goals being measurable. It won’t do to have a vague idea of what must be done to improve the situation. It is vital that the goals set can measure improvement over time.

Such goals should also be focused on work and the day to day tasks and interactions with colleagues. Do not set goals regarding personality traits, as this will likely antagonise an already disgruntled or poor-performing employee.

The objectives should be clear and attainable with measured steps towards the end goal, with any necessary training provided to help the employee achieve the ultimate target. This is especially important if a big part of the problem is missing skills or knowledge. For some employees, the skills requiring training might be soft skills such as communication and collaboration.

Step 4 – Provide Continuous Feedback

Hauling someone into an office to be criticised doesn’t help many situations in the work environment. In fact, it is often a cause of employee disgruntlement in the first place.

Transforming a difficult employee into a good employee is an ongoing process that requires continuous feedback, so make sure they have the feedback they need to keep improving.

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