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10 Tips on Dealing With Difficult Employees

David has over 15 years of supervisory experience and has extensive knowledge of how to handle personnel issues across many areas.

Wondering how to deal with difficult employees? These suggestions will help.

Wondering how to deal with difficult employees? These suggestions will help.

Dealing with Difficult Employees

Difficult employees can be the hardest thing that a manager has to deal with. Contracts, budgeting, and other work stresses don't compare when having to deal with a difficult employee.

A difficult employee may not be one that is causing problems or getting in trouble. It could be someone who is just underperforming in their current job role and needs to have that adjusted to make them more productive. Then again, a difficult employee can be one who knowingly breaks the rules, fails to do a job task multiple times, or is disrespectful.

This article provides tips on how to handle difficult employees as well as my own experiences.

Tips on how to Handle Difficult Employees

Here are some tips that you will want to follow when dealing with a difficult employee:

  1. Adjust to their personality. When you are dealing with a difficult employee, ensure you do so in a way that fits their personality. You might be able to call someone in your office and talk to them one-on-one without any problems. However, the next person may not handle direct confrontation well. So adjust yourself to their personality. It will make the process that much easier.
  2. Keep documentation. Document employee mistakes and behavior. Some companies may not allow this without the employee's knowledge, but if you keep a personal log that is meant just for you and not their employee file, then you should be safe. If you do place something in their file, the employee should sign off on it so they know it's going in there and so they won't deny it in the future.
  3. Follow proper disciplinary procedures. Don't just go and fire someone. You don't want to risk a lawsuit even if you are in the right. Go through your organization's procedures when disciplining your employees. It will be hard for them to dispute it if you have all of your ducks in a row. Disciplinary steps are outlined later in this article.
  4. Don't be afraid to discipline your good employees. Sometimes it's necessary. Not everyone is perfect. If it's a small error, you can let it slide, but if it isn't, then you have to take action. If anything, good employees will understand and learn from their mistakes.
  5. Back talking isn't that bad. This is something you will have to let roll off your back. Sometimes an employee will back talk. It happens. I have had employees do it in front of others, and I have had to deal with it privately. Sometimes someone needs to vent. I have back-talked my own supervisor. This isn't that big of a deal. It can cause you to become more upset than anything else, but in the end, it's petty. Be the levelheaded one, and don't respond to it. In time they will back off if they see you aren't letting it upset you.
  6. Ask them questions. Ask them if they are having problems at home or if they are having problems at work. A lot of problems can be solved if you ask questions. It could be something simple that can be solved in a short amount of time and with little effort.
  7. Reassign them. Sometimes a job isn't good for the person. It's not the right fit. So try reassigning them to another task. You could find that they excel in that job task, and your disciplinary issues will simply vanish.
  8. Keep a straight face. Your staff will try to use their emotions against you. They will cry or get angry or choose not to speak to you. Don't let it affect how you treat them. Don't come down harder on them or be more lenient because of how they act. If you treat everyone the same across the board, then they will see you are fair with everyone and respect your decisions.
  9. Have someone else speak to them. The employee may react better when someone else talks to them. Maybe they feel uncomfortable coming to you about certain issues, so a neutral party may help bring them out of their shell.
  10. Challenge them. A difficult employee could just be bored with the job or tasks assigned to them. So they may have little to no job satisfaction. Giving them a harder task may correct their ways.

I also recommend picking up the book It's Your Ship. It's a quick, great read that provides real-world stories on being a manager in the workplace.

If you run a business, if you are responsible for a lot of people, you come to grips with the reality that you have to have discipline. You have to protect the enterprise in order to take care of the employees. So, therefore, you can't be wasteful. You can't squander things, or you jeopardize other people.

— Steve Wynn

Following the proper steps when disciplining a difficult employee will allow you to try to correct the problem instead of just terminating the employee.

Following the proper steps when disciplining a difficult employee will allow you to try to correct the problem instead of just terminating the employee.

Disciplinary Steps for Employees

Below are some general steps you should take when disciplining an employee to ensure the proper steps are taken:

  1. Talk to the employee. Don't go right to writing someone up on their first offense. Talk to them a couple of times when you see problems arise. Moving on to a write-up could make things a lot worse for you in the end. A simple word or two can solve a lot of problems, especially if you do it casually outside of your office.
  2. The write-up. In time a write-up may be needed. By this time, you should have plenty of examples showing what the employee is doing wrong and what they must do to correct themselves. Don't go into excessive detail. This is a way to advise them that they need to correct their issues before you move on to more severe forms of discipline.
  3. The permanent write-up. If they still don't correct their issues, then you result in something permanent. This kind of write-up will stay in their file and could haunt them for their entire career, but it could be necessary if you want to correct their actions.
  4. Plan for improvement. Perhaps the employee is not improving but doesn't quite warrant termination. Instead, you will develop a plan that both you and the employee will be in agreement with. This requires a commitment from you to help them improve by working with them one-on-one. Something like this needs to be put in writing.
  5. Special evaluations. This is to give them a chance to improve but helps pave the way to termination. A 90-day evaluation, with evaluations every 30 days, can help solve the problems that the employee may have. It will allow you to outline the progress they have made or what else they need to work on. If they fail to succeed, then you can move on to termination.
  6. Termination. Obviously, this means firing the employee. I strongly suggest you follow the steps above or your own organization's rules before you terminate the employee.

Keep in mind that you may skip these steps or change them around based on the issue at hand. There are times you may skip all of the steps and go right to termination.

Keeping proper documentation on your difficult employees will allow you to monitor any issues you are having with them.

Keeping proper documentation on your difficult employees will allow you to monitor any issues you are having with them.

My Experiences Handling Difficult Employees

Below are a few experiences I had dealing with a difficult employee.

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  • I had an employee who was unprofessional and trying to get out of work. I spoke to the employee multiple times, but the issue was never resolved. Eventually, I had to place this employee on a special evaluation that outlined what the issues were and what needed to be done to correct them. By the end of the evaluation, corrective action was taken. This employee was a valuable employee until they retired.
  • I had another employee who was constantly making mistakes. The mistakes were critical and were happening in different areas of this person's job. We spoke multiple times, write-ups were given, etc. Eventually, we developed a plan of improvement. As part of this, I sat down with the employee to watch them perform their duties. Within minutes of observing the employee, I saw that they were taking a shortcut in one of their processes. I instructed the employee to no longer take that shortcut, and soon the accuracy issues disappeared.
  • One employee's personal problems resulted in poor work performance overall. I consistently talked to this employee about their accuracy issues and other problems they were having in the office. It was one of my more experienced employees, so it was a surprise it was happening. This employee eventually opened up to another supervisor and my supervisor about some personal problems at home. She received the help she needed, and soon her work performance improved.
  • I had an employee who couldn't be helped. One of my trusted employees started to have behavioral problems. This employee shared confidential information, knowingly disobeyed directives, etc. I had started a disciplinary process that included write-ups and a performance plan for improvement. I left that position before the disciplinary action could be concluded, but from what I understand, there are still issues. Not everyone can be helped, so termination may be the only choice you have.

Do you have any experience dealing with difficult employees? If so, share them in the comments below.

Disciplining New Employees

Disciplining new employees should be treated differently than your permanent employees. You will want to coach them and have them try to correct their ways rather than moving to write-ups and other forms of discipline.

If during the period you have them on probation, they still aren't working out, then cut your losses and terminate them. Sometimes an employee doesn't fit in with the job.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2012 David Livermore


peachy from Home Sweet Home on March 22, 2015:

a good leader knows how to handle difficult, bad temper employees well

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on October 09, 2014:

In most cases you can go to the supervisor above that one to report the issue. If it's in a small business or dealing with an owner, that's when you have to resort to civil litigation.

Linda Bryen from United Kingdom on October 09, 2014:

What about if it is the supervisor doing something wrong and the employee has suffered?

Hugo Furst from Australia on December 11, 2013:

Thanks for the tips, pal -- very helpful! And massive thanks for writing this hub. Voted up!

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on March 23, 2013:

Behavior is a much harder issue. With work errors and mistakes you have the cold, hard proof in front of you. Some of the hardest disciplinary issues I had to deal with is employee conduct. So I know how you feel. Thanks for your comment.

Cathleena Beams from Tennessee on March 23, 2013:

As a fairly new supervisor (since November 2012) with a difficult employee of my own that I deal with now on a regular basis, your article caught my attention. I feel like I could write a book on this myself due to the experience I have had over the last several months. Performance problems aren't too hard to handle and I'd much rather deal with those than the employee that has conduct or behavior issues. Great hub!

Junie Butler from LONDON on March 17, 2013:

Very nice tips!

ahorseback on March 16, 2013:

I have been a supervisor in many different positions and the most difficult problem for me was enforcing safety rules , and dealing with difficult personality mixes among employees. I once went to managers meeting where a motivational speaker gave me a very important tool for enforcement ! If you are having issues with enforcement , "Hit them in the pocket book " , send an employee home unpaid for one , two , or three days !.......It works instantly ! One or two days of lost pay can really change an attitude for good ! No man wants to go home and say to his wife , "I lost a couple hundred dollars because of my attitude "! They were not allowed to use sick days , vacation pay or personal days to make up either !..........:-}

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on February 01, 2013:


Devon Johnson from New York City on February 01, 2013:

Great hub, thanks for the tips.

monas1418 on January 26, 2013:

Of course we are not all perfect people, to right a wrong, I don't have a problem with saying" okay WE all know the problem, what's the solution? How can we fix this? because really we are a team, that's what I always thought. Yes it does come with the territory difficult people, We all know the dynamics, the people that complain, the people that are constant call off's who don't show up to work, the people that don't complete their work, we know all of that, sad to say those employees really what make up the workforce, I'm not saying to baby these employees, what I am saying, is you can't satify everyone. This is why I can never be one, to have somebodies livelihood in your hands, is a huge responsibility, I have never heard not one of my Supervisors say" I messed up!!

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on January 26, 2013:

Each situation is different, from what I have found. I know I have sometimes made situations worse with the decisions I made, thus making it seem like I lack people skills. But we can't all be perfect!

monas1418 on January 26, 2013:

excellent Hub, but what I've found with supervisors they are not going to do no more than they have to, they put people in these positions and they have no people skills , they have not done the proper assement in the department to effectively lead. I have learned to be still and quiet, because a lot of times what happens is they take your questions the wrong way, and turn it around, like your the rabble rouser, or the quote' un quote, troublemaker" that's where the trouble starts when you start questioning, not them and their responsiblities, but yourself and yours, and they can't answer them.. that's when it all starts to go to hell in a handbasket. excellent hub!!

Lisa Ryan from Cleveland, OH on January 16, 2013:

Since employee engagement, retention and recognition by creating a culture of appreciation (gratitude strategies) is my favorite thing to write about, you may get some good ideas from my hubs. I'm brand new to Hubpages and really like the site. Stay tuned! :)

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on January 16, 2013:

When I first became a supervisor I used to focus almost entirely on the negative, and rarely the positive. Now I try to find a better balance. It's a hard thing to learn as a new supervisor. Thanks for your comment!

Lisa Ryan from Cleveland, OH on January 16, 2013:

Thanks for the information. You gave a lot of valuable insight to managers that have to deal with this situation. Sometimes problem employees just need a little positive reinforcement and appreciation for a job well done. We often concentrate on the negative aspects of employee behavior without acknowledging when they are doing things well.

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on November 23, 2012:

I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub. It took many years for me to figure out how to handle a difficult employee, and I still learn something new almost each time I have to. Thanks for the comment.

jaydene from Alberta, Canada on November 23, 2012:

This is a great hub and very informative. I have been a supervisor, and maybe again in the future, so I value good ways to handle these types of issues. They can seem so awkward, and touchy at best. Having the right approach is key it seems. Thank you :)

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on November 11, 2012:

Lucky you! I have pretty decent staff members now, but I do have one or two difficult ones. Comes with the territory. Thanks for your comment!

Kimberly Vaughn from Midwest on November 11, 2012:

As another supervisor I can understand and totally agree with your ideas. I am lucky to have a great staff right now!

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on February 16, 2012:

@ Lizam1 - Thank you. :)

Lizam1 on February 15, 2012:

Good hub. I have a great boss but I have had some horrors in the past who really need this information:-)

David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on February 15, 2012:

@ golfcart34 - Thank you very much. And good point, thanks for bringing it up.

Amanda Tallman from Vermont on February 15, 2012:

Thanks for a great article! One aspect of employee relations that always fascinates me it that of workplace deviance, be it positive or negative. When documenting performance problems I always recommend that managers keep hard proof to substantiate their claims in order to protect both the manager and the company, especially should a lawsuit be brought against the company. Voted this one up.

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