How to Deal with Difficult Employees

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A difficult employee behaves contrary to your company’s professional expectations. Some characteristics of difficult employees are as follows:

  • Disruptive to workplace efficiency.
  • Poor performers who won’t take responsibility for their substandard work.
  • Confrontational and given to unproductive debate or undermining.


When dealing with a problematic employee, first identify the behavior’s origin.


There are many reasons for poor performance, but most issues stem from three sources.

  • The first is insufficient training or inexperience. Inexperienced employees mean well but can’t perform satisfactorily. Address this by offering appropriate training or experience.
  • The second cause is a system or resource issue. If the employee doesn’t have the necessary tools or information, unsatisfactory performance may result. Address this problem by ensuring your employees have the needed resources.
  • The third cause is poor motivation. Employees lose motivation to perform their jobs due to dissatisfaction, warring priorities, problems outside work, or workplace conflicts.



6 Tips for dealing with unmotivated employees.


  1. The problem is the behavior, not the person. Rather than label the person, address the behavior. Point out the adverse effects of the behavior and recommend ways to correct the misconduct or performance issue.


  1. Get to the root of the problem. Knowing the cause of unacceptable behavior is critical to working with the employee to correct it. The problem may relate to the work they perform, their coworkers, or the workplace environment. In some cases, the problem may relate to issues outside of work.


  1. Maintain two-way communication. The best way to learn what’s bugging an employee is to ask them. Often, employees are just waiting for someone to hear them out and understand their problems. Don’t judge until you’ve had a chance to hear the whole story and consider all sides. Instead, look for opportunities to work with employees to improve undesirable behavior or poor performance.


  1. Set specific expectations. For change to occur, difficult employees must understand what you expect of them. Be clear, give examples, and test for understanding by asking the employee to summarize your expectations.


  1. Define consequences. Once the employee understands your expectations and the time frame in which you’d like to observe positive change, have them write down the requested behavioral modifications. Include the consequences of not achieving the identified goals.


  1. Provide periodic feedback. Perform periodic progress evaluations and inform employees of the results. Recognize progress (or a lack thereof) appropriately.


When dealing with difficult employees, acting preemptively before a problem becomes disruptive is essential. Keep an open mind, consider the employee’s perspective, and observe the worker’s impact on coworkers and overall productivity. Respect the employee’s privacy and involve others only on a need-to-know basis. Finally, be patient. But be sure to act if the employee fails to respond appropriately to your efforts.

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