How to Handle Difficult Employees

Whether they are setting a negative tone, distracting others or simply acting uncooperative — troublesome employees can derail an entire office. Here is a guide to adjusting the behavior of a difficult employee:

Understand the issueDo not base your assessment of an employee solely on office gossip. If you are faced with a complaint, do the research necessary to confirm the fact. Try to pay greater attention to office relationships, and when you notice something yourself, take note. You may not always have time to research, particularly with serious complaints involving harassment, discrimination, theft or personal safety. When you can speak from personal observation, your notes and direct witness report will help when you begin to address the issue. A strong understanding of the employee’s behavior can facilitate a solution.

Address the problem head-onUnfortunately, managers simply cannot (and should not) ignore difficult employees, or the issues may worsen. Once you have an adequate understanding of the problem, schedule a meeting with the employee. When you are in the meeting, raise your relevant concerns in a gentle and respectful manner. Make sure to clarify that you are not punishing the employee but seeking out a way to make the workplace more comfortable for everyone. Talk about specific problems and how the difficult behavior affects the work environment. Address the behavior without turning the conversation toward personal criticism. Explain how the employee’s speech and actions affect the other workers. During the meeting, you may discover some circumstances driving the problematic behavior, such as stress or personal issues. Such information can help you both move toward progress.

Provide guidance for improvementTry to take on a positive tone, even when discussing negative behavior. Stress what you want to accomplish, and explain how an improved performance can contribute to change. If the employee has been argumentative during meetings, say that you would like meetings to be a cooperative space and taking a respectful tone can help you all accomplish the company’s goals. The employee will likely wish to make a positive change, and you should help guide them toward improvement. Communicate expected changes and the repercussions if things do not change You may want to come up with a schedule for checking in and small practices for daily behavior, such as asking a question during a meeting instead of attacking someone else. Old habits die hard, so do not expect to see immediate change. Repeat your suggestions whenever appropriate, through a quick e-mail or an encouraging note. Ongoing communication is key to dealing with a difficult employee.

Do not be afraid to terminate If the employee has shown no improvement despite all your efforts, you may have to dismiss him or her from the job. Termination should generally be a last resort, but it may be necessary. Managers have to supervise many employees and cannot dedicate too much time to one person indefinitely. Firing someone can be a stressful experience, especially if you have already dedicated a lot of time and effort to the employee. You can ease the process by terminating the employee as respectfully and responsibly as possible.