Difficult Bosses
Womens' Issues in the Workplace

Dealing with Difficult Employees in the Workplace

Strategic Suggestions for Handling Difficult Employees

In my last blog I talked about difficult bosses. To be fair, I feel compelled to address the issue of how to handle difficult employees. The Resolution Skills Centre in Winnepeg, Canada reports that more than half of working Canadians experience anxiety, irritability with co-workers, defensiveness, anger, mood swings and feelings of helplessness or of being trapped in work.  Difficult employees come in many forms. They might be complainers, they can be negative and blame others, or be arrogant know-it-alls. They might be argumentative, bullies or even isolationist – but one thing all these personalities have in common is the burden they place on other staff. “The number one challenge for leaders is not typically the business issue, it’s the people problems,” says Jeff Mowatt, a customer service strategist, professional speaker and author based in Calgary who specializes in improving employee behavior.

The labeling of an employee “difficult” isn’t a matter of someone having a bad day. It becomes a problem when someone is continually and chronically getting in the way of you living your life or doing your job effectively. They’re the squeaky wheel in everything you do … and those who are like that continually and chronically can really kill an organization.” While the number of difficult people in a workplace is usually small the figures are rising. Problems such as harassment and bullying in the workplace can lead to lawsuits and stress cases. Why is that occurring? I believe it reflects the loss of civility in society and general decline in ethical behavior. Road rage is a good example as well as cutting into a line. One cause is the use of e-mail and social media to vent one’s anger.  Television shows like Hell’s Kitchen where Gordon Ramsay routinely berates the cooking contestants sets a rude, uncivil tone. People start to believe it’s OK to talk to others like that.

Here are a few suggestions for managers and supervisors to avoid conflict and instead turn it into positive change:

Hire the right staff: When it comes to a customer service job, hire attitude over aptitude. During the interview ask a question such as: How would you feel about and respond to a difficult, over-demanding boss?  

Keep the job interesting: Engaging staff and instilling teamwork can help motivate a difficult employee and keep co-workers less focused on the problem person and more on the common goal.

Charlene Guenter, coordinator of the Resolution Skills Centre, says: “A lot of time we find people are difficult because they aren’t feeling they are part of things. In the end, the goal is to keep your employees and find ways to work with them and keep them engaged.”

Do everything by the book: Ensure your organization has policies that cover its expectations of employees in areas such as code of conduct, ethics, workplace violence, sexual harassment and use of company equipment and property. “Conflict resolution processes should also be part of your policy manuals so people understand” what happens if policies are contravened, says Guenter.

Attack problems quickly: The early intervention will help prevent an issue from becoming widespread and causing damage. Supervisors who wait too long before taking action may become frustrated and less open to hearing your employee’s side without being punitive. If problems aren’t addressed swiftly, the employee may take it to mean it’s acceptable – which can work against an organization in any wrongful dismissal suit.

Meet with no interruptions and be specific: Addressing issues should be done face to face, and at a time that is “safe” for both the supervisor and employee. A supervisor might say to the employee, “Come by my office at the end of your day to have a chat” and “I’d like to speak to you about what happened yesterday, specifically about your absenteeism, negative attitude” or whatever is the difficult behavior.

Instill trust and feelings of security: Guenter stresses encouraging employees to talk about their feelings instead of prejudging. So don’t say, “I notice you’re always coming in late.” Instead, Ask, “I am wondering about what it is causing you to be late to work every day” and let the person speak about what’s going on with him or her.

Document everything and follow up: Employees are becoming more aware of their rights, making it even more important to document everything because the legal system does help difficult people keep their jobs. Provide a timeline for follow-up.  

It is important to be sensitive to the employee to create a trusting environment. However, never let a problem employee continue with behavior that might infect the workplace. It is not fair to the other employees who are trying to be diligent and cooperative, and it can have long-term negative consequences for the organization. Remember, you can send me a question about issues in your workplace that will be responded to as an anonymous sender. Just send it to: steve@ethicssage.com.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 25, 2011