The Key to Managing Difficult Employees

by | Apr 15, 2024

In every workplace, there’s bound to be a challenging employee, someone who tests the patience and skills of even the most seasoned managers. Whether it’s consistent underperformance, a bad attitude, or frequent conflicts, having to deal with difficult employees can drain morale and productivity if not addressed effectively. 

So, what exactly makes an employee difficult, and how can employers navigate these situations while ensuring the mental wellbeing of all staff?

Understanding the difficult employee

While the term is broad and can encompass various behaviours, common traits of a difficult employee often include:

  • poor performance;
  • a negative attitude; 
  • resistance to feedback;
  • and a propensity for causing workplace conflict. 

Moreover, these individuals may struggle to collaborate with colleagues, resist following company policies, or display a lack of motivation towards their work tasks. At this point, you might be thinking to yourself: why bother keeping such an employee on? And that question is a problem in itself. 

When we think of the person as the problem we don’t call for an empathetic or compassionate answer, where instead, as employers we need to be scratching beneath the surface and endeavouring to answer a more human-centric question in the face of tricky employees, which is: where is this behaviour coming from?

Identifying the root causes

Hiring managers should recognise that behind every difficult employee lies a story. Poor performance could stem from a lack of training or resources, personal issues outside of work, or even a mismatch between the employee’s skills and job responsibilities. A bad attitude might be a symptom of dissatisfaction with company culture or leadership, while conflict situations might arise due to miscommunication or unaddressed grievances.

Human beings are complex, which makes it difficult to pinpoint a generic cause for why an employee might resist feedback, disregard policies or fail to meet deadlines. Aside from putting a mental health and safety risk management system in place, the best approach that employers can take to manage staff effectively, boils down to two key objectives: 

1. Fostering a work environment that promotes employee development and mental wellbeing in the workplace.

2. Establishing systems to better understand employee needs, characteristics and workstyles.

Manager addressing mental wellbeing with employee in a work environment.

Building a work environment that not only supports the mental wellbeing and development of employees, but also strives to understand their needs, characteristics and workstyles is no mean feat. It requires leadership participation and commitment, time and dedication, attention to detail, and most of all, a strong desire to transform your business from a good place to work to a great one. 

Take your business from good to great

1. Create psychological safety:

Creating a work environment where employees feel safe to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal is essential. Psychological safety encourages open communication and trust, reducing the likelihood of conflicts festering beneath the surface. Employers should actively solicit feedback, listen to employee concerns, and demonstrate a willingness to address issues promptly and constructively.

The best way to ensure that your business is doing what it reasonably should (as according to UK employment law) to protect workers from undue psychological ill health is by implementing a mental health and safety management system, which is geared up to manage psychosocial (mental health) hazards and risks, identify control measures and assess efficacy of those controls to minimise undue harm. 

2. Manage stress at work:

Stress can exacerbate difficult behaviours and contribute to a toxic work environment. Employers should implement strategies to promote effective stress management at work, such as offering wellbeing programmes, flexible work arrangements, and resources for mental health support. Encouraging regular breaks, promoting work-life integration, and providing avenues for employees to decompress can all contribute to a healthier and more resilient workforce.

3. Address performance issues:

When dealing with poor performance, it’s essential to address the issue promptly and directly. Schedule a private meeting with the employee to discuss specific areas where improvement is needed, provide clear expectations, and offer support or resources to help them succeed. Document the conversation and establish a timeline for follow-up discussions to track progress.

Remember: be firm, but fair! This doesn’t have to be some big, scary meeting that makes employees feel nervous. It needs to be a two-way conversation, one where your employees listen to you, and you listen to them too. Often, performance issues stem from underlying issues that have gone unchecked and could easily be a product of psychosocial hazards that have been missed during an internal risk assessment. So, be firm, but be kind with everyone, but especially those that dedicate the majority of their days, weeks, months and years working to build the future of your company.

4. Offer solutions for handling difficult employees:

Provide training and resources for managers to effectively handle difficult employee situations. This could include conflict resolution workshops, communication skills training, or coaching on performance management techniques. Empowering managers with the tools and support they need to navigate challenging situations can lead to more positive outcomes for all involved.

5. Face difficult conversations:

Difficult conversations are inevitable when managing challenging employees, but they are essential for addressing issues head-on and finding constructive solutions. Approach these conversations with empathy and a focus on problem-solving rather than blame. Use active listening techniques, remain calm and composed, and strive for mutual understanding and respect.

  1. Employee surveys
  2. Performance reviews
  3. Open communication

Managing difficult employees is complex but necessary

Through targeted training for employees, your business can foster psychological safety, promote effective stress management, address performance issues promptly, thrive on difficult conversations, and offer solutions for handling challenging situations, all to create a healthier and more productive work environment for all staff. 

By favouring a holistic, compassionate and humanistic approach, you contribute to a workplace that not only prioritises its people and their wellbeing, but also strives to solve problems in the face of adversity, rather than avoid them. As the saying goes, “you reap what you sow”, and in this case, you’d be sowing the seeds of progression and development, which is what drives long-term business success. 

Stay informed to unlock the benefits of improved workplace wellbeing.