Difficult employees are different than underperforming employees.
Underperforming employees may not have any behavior issues, they just may not have the skills or training they need, or they just may be in the wrong position.
Difficult employees could have high performance or low performance. The issue with them is their attitude and/or behavior.
Dealing with a difficult employee can be challenging, especially if some people see them as “high performing”.
It’s also tough because the person may be difficult to have a conversation with. However, as a leader, it’s your job to deal with them and you should know how to manage difficult employees.
How do you handle a situation with a difficult employee?
In this article, we will discuss aspects you need to think about, questions to ask, and steps you can take to deal with the situation.
Note: The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Laws and regulations regarding the handling of underperforming and difficult employees may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We recommend consulting with your HR department or a legal professional before taking any action in regard to a difficult employee.
Table of Contents
Characteristics of difficult employees and their behaviors
What are some common characteristics of difficult employees and their behaviors?
In this section, we discuss potential characteristics or traits that you may see. Not everyone will have every trait and some will have different traits, but you will likely recognize some of these traits in difficult employees.
We’ll start off with what we mean by “difficult employee”.
What do we mean when we call someone a “difficult employee”?
When we talk about a “difficult employee,” we’re referring to someone who consistently creates problems and challenges in the workplace. This person can be hard to manage and may affect the morale and productivity of other team members.
These employees can create tension, reduce productivity, and make the workplace unpleasant for others.
Common traits of difficult employees
Each employee is different and may have different traits. Below is a list of possible characteristics and traits of difficult employees.
1. Negative attitude and constant complaining
This employee is constantly negative. Nothing is ever good enough and they always find the negative in the situation. They often bring down the mood when they are in the room.
When they talk, they are constantly complaining and being negative in their speech.
2. Lives a “me vs you” attitude
They don’t see themselves as part of a team; they see themselves in competition with everyone else. Instead of seeing themselves working together to accomplish something, they see themselves as competing for resources, attention, or their way of doing something.
They may act out when they feel that their own interests are being threatened.
3. Exhibits resistance to feedback, constructive criticism, and suggestions for improvement
Difficult employees may not accept feedback well, even if it’s well-intentioned and aimed at helping them improve. They may react defensively, dismiss any criticism as unfair, or see any comment on their work as an attack on them and their worth.
They may try to manipulate the situation or change the subject to keep you or others from confronting them.
4. Uncooperative behavior and refusal to work as a team
This employee may consistently act in a manner that goes against the interests of the team. They may refuse to or avoid collaborating or working with others, ignore their requests for assistance, or be seen as obstructive or hostile.
5. Difficulty following rules and guidelines
The employee may frequently break the rules and push boundaries. They may be constantly late or exhibit other behaviors that go against the culture and rules. They may see themselves as exempt from following the same guidelines as others.
6. Argumentative, rude, violent, or disruptive behavior
The employee may consistently engage in behavior that causes trouble and creates conflict. They may argue with colleagues, be rude or hostile to others, or engage in violent or disruptive behavior.
7. Consistently failing to meet deadlines or follow through on commitments
The employee may struggle to meet deadlines and may consistently fall short of their commitments. They may be seen as unreliable and may negatively affect the productivity of others as well as be a frustration to others.
8. Inflexibility and resistance to change or new ideas
This employee may have trouble adapting to change or may resist new ideas and processes. They are stuck on doing it a certain way and are unwilling to change.
They may have a certain way they like to do things and are unwilling to compromise or change when collaborating with others or when new processes, technology, or change happens.
9. Insubordination or refusal to follow directions
The employee may consistently ignore or go against the instructions of their managers or leaders. The team may make a decision in a meeting, but they fight against it or do the opposite after the meeting.
To them, it may be their way or the highway.
The Impact of Difficult Employees on the Team and Workplace Culture
A difficult employee’s behavior can create many issues. Left unchecked, it can kill your team’s morale and motivation and cause your employees to begin looking for new jobs.
In this section, we’ll discuss the different impacts difficult employees can have on the team and the culture.
1. Decreases motivation, engagement, and morale of the team
When a team must deal with a difficult employee, especially one that is unchecked, it can easily lower motivation, engagement, and morale. The negative and uncooperative behaviors cause frustration, lowers job satisfaction, and diminish morale.
Employees also may question and lose trust in management and, depending on the severity, begin looking for another job.
2. Creates tension and conflicts within the team
When an employee is uncooperative, rude, argumentative, or unwilling to receive feedback, it can create tension and conflict among the team. That, as mentioned above, also can decrease morale.
3. Reduces cooperation and collaboration among team members
When even one team member refuses to collaborate, cooperate, and work together, it hurts the collaboration as a whole. It makes it harder to get things done and lowers team productivity.
4. Increases stress and burnout among team members
Having to deal with negative behaviors and people creates stress on your team. Having to work through and around someone who is uncooperative and negative can take an emotional toll and cause burnout on your team.
5. Reduces commitment to the mission and goals
When employees must deal with an unchecked difficult employee, they lose trust in management and their mission. They can easily begin focusing more on working around that person and staying in their lane than working together toward the goal.
6. Increases turnover
When morale and motivation lowers, when stress increases and the frustration lingers from constantly having to deal with the negative or difficult employee, employees, especially your good ones, are likely to look for a new place to work.
7. Decreases trust and confidence in leadership and management
When a difficult employee is left unchecked, employees begin to question management and their competence. They wonder why they work and cooperate to the degree they do when others are left unchecked with their level of work and negative behavior.
This lack of trust hurts morale, productivity, and the pursuit of the company’s mission and goals.
8. Decreases creativity and innovation
The stressful and negative situation that this creates can hurt creativity and innovation. Mental stamina is taken up with stress and dealing with issues versus focusing on new ideas and making things better.
9. Gives a poor reputation for the company or department
If a team has a lingering difficult employee, it makes others not work in that department. It also gives the department a bad name.
It’s the same with the company. Especially with how everything is visible on the internet when difficult employees are allowed to fester, people know, and the best and brightest are likely to avoid working with you.
10. Ultimately, it kills productivity, morale, and company output
When difficult employees are left unchecked, no matter how “productive” they are, it kills company culture, kills morale and motivation, lowers overall productivity, causes your good employees to want to leave, and diminishes company output and revenue.
Why do we sometimes not deal with difficult employees when we should?
If not managing a difficult employee will create so many issues, why do we, or people in general, not deal with the issues? Here are a few reasons why:
1. Lack of training and skills in managing conflict
As a manager, part of your job is to manage conflict with your team and within the workplace. Unfortunately, many managers have never been trained or trained well, so it makes it difficult to deal with these situations.
Because they don’t know how, don’t know what to say, or their previous experiences did not turn out well, they avoid the confrontation.
2. Inadequate resources, such as time or support from superiors
Sometimes managers don’t deal with difficult employees because they don’t feel like they have the time to do so. They are already overloaded and busy, and taking the time to deal with this “people problem” is not important enough to them.
Unfortunately, not dealing with difficult employees just creates more issues to deal with which take more time, and dealing with “people problems” is part of your job.
Sometimes though there isn’t support from superiors, whether in training or other resources, and that makes it hard for the leader or manager to deal with the problem effectively.
3. Difficulty in identifying and addressing the root cause of the problem
Too often, the work to “fix” the problem is done to fix symptoms, not the root cause. It’s a lot easier brushing things over or making a quick rule than actually digging in and finding the root cause and then dealing with it.
4. Fear of negative consequences, such as legal repercussions or damaging workplace relationships
Sometimes leaders avoid dealing with difficult employees because they fear the legal headache that could come with it. Other times, they have relationships with those people and with their team.
They are afraid that if they deal with the problem, it will hurt that relationship with that person (and maybe the whole team).
5. Concerns over the potential negative impact on employee morale and team dynamics
Sometimes leaders assume that dealing with a negative employee will cause negative repercussions on the team. They think it will hurt morale and team dynamics.
Often, though, they find it actually helps team morale and people are wondering why you didn’t deal with the issue earlier.
6. Personal biases or emotions cloud judgment
Sometimes personal biases or emotions cloud judgment. This person may have been a friend or they were part of the beginning of the company.
Whatever the reason, viewing it through that cloud keeps us from seeing the situation clearly and from taking the action we should.
7. They are a “high performer”
This is one of the big issues and reasons difficult employees aren’t dealt with. They get short-term results, and because they get those results, managers try to “work around” the issues they cause.
The problem is, long-term, you usually kill results. The difficult employee, as we discussed earlier, kills morale, and motivation, and causes people to leave.
You may get some short-term results, but in the long term, it can kill it (and your team).
Causes of Difficult Behavior in the Workplace
Why are some people “difficult”? What causes difficult behavior in people? Let’s look at some of the possible causes:
They are jaded from past experiences
The employee may have had some bad experiences in the past. It may have been with poor leaders, dealing with bureaucracy, or they were burned by their team. Whatever it is, they are letting their past experiences overshadow their current behaviors.
They feel unheard and underappreciated
This happens a lot in many companies and different people react differently to this. When people feel unheard and underappreciated, they are going to react to it. It lowers motivation, drive, passion for the company and their work, and creativity and innovation. Some just leave. Some just try to stay in their lane, get the bare minimum done and go home, some leave the company, some try to make it work and get frustrated, and others react in negative ways.
They are burned out
Sometimes employees are just burned out, and their reaction to it is a negative one that affects everyone.
They are just trying to coast to retirement
Some are bent on retirement and just want to stay in their lane, do the minimum, and get the last of their time done. They may resist new ideas, change, or anything that messes with that mentality.
They are a bad fit
It could be that the person is just a bad fit for the company and/or the culture. Not everyone is meant for every kind of culture. They just may need to find one that fits them better.
Competition in itself isn’t always bad, but when you are stuck in a competitive mindset and see everything as competition instead of collaboration, that hurts.
They have bad people skills
It could be they just have bad people skills. They were never taught and never learned from others how to approach and deal with people well.
They are missing other soft skills or training
They may just be missing some other soft skills or training. They may not know how to learn or even know they don’t know that they are missing those skills.
They have poor emotional intelligence
They may have poor emotional intelligence. They aren’t aware of their emotions and how they come across to others. They don’t know how to read people or empathize or build effective relationships.
They are immoral or lack integrity
Sometimes people are just not great people. They may be immoral, unethical, and lack integrity.
They have bad habits
Sometimes they just have bad habits that hurt them. They may not even know they have those habits or that it is those habits that are causing their issues.
They don’t care anymore
This could combine a mixture of the ones previously, but they just don’t care anymore. They may be burnt out, jaded, done with it all, about to retire, whatever – they just don’t care – and it shows.
Steps for Managing a Difficult Employee
In this section, we’ll discuss the steps how to manage difficult employees. This is a sample and an example. The situation and what you do exactly may vary according to the person, situation, culture, and behavior.
Also, it’s wise and we recommend talking to your HR department or legal advice (depending on your company and situation) first.
1. You need to recognize if it’s you or if you have a part in that negative behavior (and fix it)
Sometimes the problem is you (or at least partly you). If that’s the case, before “dealing” with the employee, you need to fix your part first. Sometimes, that can fix the situation.
Let’s look at some of the ways you may have contributed to the problem and questions you can ask to see if it’s something simple you might do to fix the problem:
Are you being a poor leader?
Is it that you are a poor leader or have at least exhibited poor leadership?
However, do you listen to your employees? Do you care for them and do they know that and feel supported? Or do they feel they have to watch over their shoulders? Do you put profits over people or people over profits?
Do your employees feel appreciated? Do you put other people down to make yourself look good? Are you serving your team or do you feel they are there to serve you? Do you cast blame on your team when things go wrong but take the credit when things go well?
Do you micromanage your employees? Do your employees fear bringing up issues or problems or disagreeing with you? Do you pit teammates against teammates?
Have you created or allowed a negative environment where gossip and negative attitudes permeate and are allowed? Do you act with integrity? Does your team trust you, and do you trust your team?
Are you competent in getting things done? These are just a few examples to consider. If you see many of the negative signs in you, it may not be them that is the problem.
It might be YOU.
Here are other questions you may need to ask before talking to the person:
Have you talked with them about the situation before?
Sometimes issues are allowed to fester, and the person doesn’t even know there is an issue, because no one has told them. If you haven’t told them there is an issue, that’s a problem. They may not even know.
Have you set clear expectations?
Have you set clear expectations about behaviors and what is expected when on the job? Have you set expectations about what kind of work you want and for teamwork and collaboration?
If expectations are unclear or vague (or they are not communicated well), don’t get upset if people’s behaviors aren’t what you might want them to be.
Have you provided the resources they need?
This can include resources for getting the job done, cutting out bureaucracy, and any training they need to do the job well. If you haven’t, then that could be the problem.
Do they need training? Are they missing a skill?
Is it that they need training or need to grow in skill, whether a hard or soft skill? Have you provided or offered that training? The simple solution to the problem may be just some training or coaching.
Is that person in the right seat?
Do you have the person in the wrong seat? Are they just not the right fit for that position? If so, see if you can find a position that fits them better.
Are they the right culture fit?
Is the person the right cultural fit? If not, it may be better for them to find a culture that fits them better. It does you, your team, and the person a disserve if you hold on to them “to be kind” when you shouldn’t.
2. Gather the information you need and plan the conversation
This may vary depending on the behavior and the situation, but you may want to take some time to gather the information you need for the conversation and to plan for the conversation.
If a person has been consistently late, having the documentation that they were late will help them (and you) see the bigger picture of the problem.
IF you have a Human Resources department, you may want to talk to them before doing anything to make sure you do it according to policy. If you are newer and want help or support, talk to an experienced manager or leader to help give you some guidance.
Make sure you know what the core issue is, as much as you can (you may not really know till you talk to the person). It doesn’t help when you are trying to fix an issue when the real problem is something else.
You also want to plan and prepare yourself for the conversation. We’ll discuss some below how to have the conversation, but preparing ahead to the conversation, what you might say, how they might respond, and so on can help you be ready.
If the person has been pulling down meetings with their negativity and cynicism, you may want to think through how you want to present it, the examples you may want to give, and the impact that behavior has been having.
Depending on the behavior and how much you have talked to them about this behavior, you may also want to prepare the next steps or ideas for the next steps.
3. Meet with the person to discuss the behavior
Once you have prepared and have whatever documentation you may need, set a time (even if now) and meet with the person.
Make sure to meet them in a timely manner. Above we mentioned the fact you may want to prepare ahead of time. That’s true. But waiting two weeks, for example, to talk about behavior will likely be ineffective.
You want to deal with problems promptly and meet in a timely manner. Also, if the person knows something is up, making them wait without saying anything can affect them negatively as well.
4. Communicate the issue with the person, Then LISTEN
When you meet with the person, don’t beat around the bush. Don’t try to have small talk and such – get straight to the point. Usually, the person knows something is up, and it’s awkward, and it can make your conversation less effective once you start.
When discussing the issue with them, you want to be clear, concise, and to the point. Don’t halfway tell them something trying to be nice. Be upfront about the situation.
This doesn’t mean you don’t use tact but don’t withhold what should be said because it makes you uncomfortable or you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Think about it: What would you rather – someone hinting at something or being direct with you about what’s going on? More than likely, you would want people to be direct. Do the same for others.
Discuss the issue
Let the person know why you are talking with them.
When presenting the behavior, make sure to separate the person from the behavior. Avoid the fundamental attribution error – the tendency to attribute someone’s actions to their personality or character (and attribute ours to external circumstances).
Don’t call or imply that the person is lazy or that they are just a rude person or a jerk, focus on the behavior. Just give the facts, not your opinions on why they did it. Present the situation, the behavior, and the impact.
“In our last two meetings, you called two other people’s ideas stupid and idiotic. That caused others to shut down and not share in the meeting.”
“In the last two weeks, you arrived at least 20 minutes late 6 times. This puts a burden on everyone else until you get here as they must cover for you.”
Listen to them
One mistake managers and leaders make (and almost anyone who deals with situations like this) is that they don’t listen. They may fear the response or they think they know the “why” of the behavior, so they do all of the talking.
The problem is, when you don’t listen, the other person doesn’t feel heard and is not only less likely to listen to you but is less likely to change (at least willingly).
Once you discuss the behavior you’ve seen, ask them their viewpoint or for any insight into the situation. And make sure you actually listen. Ask questions, paraphrase, and let them know you really care about their viewpoint.
Listening can help you solve the problem. The “why” behind the behavior is often not what we think. The person may have thought they were joking in the meeting and didn’t realize they had come across so negatively.
The person late may have a car in the shop and their child in the hospital. Or they may just have a hard time waking up. You won’t know until you listen.
You may also find out that the problem is partly you. They may need resources you didn’t provide. Or they may need training. You find that out through listening.
5. Direct the conversation to the next step
At this point, a lot depends on the behavior and the reason behind the behavior. If the person has a child in the hospital, it’s likely you and your team will be glad to pitch in and help that person out while they are dealing with that situation.
You just may ask them to let you know quicker next time something comes up so you can be aware and be there to support.
If the person responds negatively to you, don’t respond in kind. Stay calm. You may have to redirect the conversation to the behavior and/or expectations.
You may also need to redirect the conversation to the expectations that they need to follow.
“I totally understand how hard it is to get up early enough to avoid the traffic in the morning. However, you need to be here at 8 because everyone is relying on you to be here.”
6. Help them come up with solutions (if applicable)
Ideally, you want to get them to help come up with the solution or next steps.
- “What do you think we can do to keep this from happening again?”
- “What support can I give you to help you with this?”
- “What do you think our next steps are?”
The bigger part they have in creating the solution, the more likely they will commit to it and follow through with it.
But, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes they are unwilling. Sometimes the situation has set rules from company policy that you must follow. Sometimes because of the behavior, you may have to take certain actions.
Also, if this has been multiple conversations, other steps may need to be taken. You may have to set consequences for continued behavior, for example.
However it’s done, make sure the plan and next steps are set, that they are clear, and that the other person completely understands.
7. Implement the plan and monitor and follow up
Once the plan has been made and established, thank them for meeting with you. Make sure to set when you will follow up with them to make sure the plan is being implemented on their part.
And make sure to monitor progress and follow up.
It will vary, depending
Again, each situation is different. What happens will vary depending on the behavior, the situation, the person, the culture, the HR policy, and so on.
However, I hope the above framework gives you a good starting point on how to manage difficult employees. And below, we give other strategies and tips to help you navigate these situations better.
Strategies and other tips for managing difficult employees
Here are some other strategies and tips for managing difficult employees and behaviors. Some we mentioned earlier, but we dive deeper here.
Make sure to identify the issue
First, you need to make sure you know what the root issue is. The problem may be that they are late constantly, but there may be a root cause behind that.
It could be that they only have one vehicle and have to share it. It could be that they are lazy. It could be something else.
Dig deep. Ask questions. Ask the 5 whys (You keep asking why to get to the root of the issue. Why is this person late? From that, why…? Why is that… and you keep going 5 times).
You can’t effectively solve the problem until you know what the real issue is.
What’s their heart? What’s their motivation? Do they care?
The person’s heart and motivation matter. It doesn’t necessarily excuse the behavior, but knowing their motivation, helps you better understand and deal with the issue.
If they have the right heart but just are lacking skills or know-how or have some kind of situation at home that is hurting them, you will want to deal with that situation differently than if the person is just lazy or doesn’t care.
This may vary depending on the situation and issue but take time to understand the person’s motivation and heart in the situation.
Address problems promptly
You want to address problems promptly. The longer you wait, the more they fester and the worse they may get. You don’t want to make decisions without getting the right information, but you don’t want to delay that process because of fear or similar reasons.
Remember your goal
When you prepare, go into the conversation, and work toward a solution, what is your goal?
Is your goal to help them get better, to support them, to fix the issue? Or is it to find what they are doing wrong and punish them?
Depending on what your goal will determine the steps and actions you take. Hopefully, you are out to support them, not to “get them”.
Also, when moments get tense, remember what your goal is and why you are having the conversation. Write it down where you can see it if that helps.
Doing so can help prevent you from doing something or saying something you may regret later and help keep you from taking the conversation down the wrong path.
Be about supporting them, not giving consequences
It’s not that you should never give consequences. But don’t let that be your goal or go-to.
Your goal should be to support the person, to help them grow and solve the issue. If you are quick about consequences, it doesn’t show support. It shows more of a “gotcha” environment (and yes, this depends on the behavior).
Again, this varies on behavior and policy and so on, but, ideally, your first conversation should be you exploring the problem and trying to support them to help them overcome it.
The second conversation with no change may be a time to show support but mention if the behavior doesn’t change, other steps may need to be taken.
The third conversation with no change will likely be: here’s the situation, this behavior needs to change or there will be these consequences.
Again, it may vary and depend on the situation, the behavior, policy, and so on, and you and others may have different opinions on when consequences come into play, but especially if it’s not a serious behavior, let your behavior be about support, not getting them for doing wrong.
Set clear expectations
Make sure to set clear expectations of the behaviors or actions expected of the person. Ask questions and get them to repeat them. Make sure they understand what you are telling them.
The more clear and concise they are, the more likely they will understand and be able to follow through.
Yes, if they continue the negative behavior, you want to discuss that with them but don’t let your feedback only be when they do wrong.
When they are doing what they are supposed to do, acknowledge it. Show appreciation. Give them feedback about it. Let them know when they are doing a good job as well.
Feedback should be frequent, but positive and constructive.
Support and coach
Provide the employee with the resources they need to succeed. Be there to coach them and help them when and if they need it, or find someone who can.
Document the situation
Document, document, document! Document everything. Make sure to follow HR policy, and make sure you keep good records.
Doing so can help you if it gets to the point of firing or if there are legal issues surrounding that person or behavior.
Involve HR if necessary
If the situation cannot be resolved through normal channels or if you just need help, get HR involved. Ask them for help with dealing with the situation and what steps you or they need to take.
Remember, the conversation number matters
A first conversation about behavior is different than a fifth conversation. Make sure to treat them differently and the actions you take with them.
Ignoring the problem is saying the behavior is “okay”
Sometimes we may be tempted to ignore the problem thinking it will just “go away” or we just don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable emotions that come with it.
Don’t do that.
Not only does it tell the other person that that behavior is okay, it tells everyone else that, too.
It can lower productivity and cause people to leave (the ones you want to keep).
Frame it to their benefit
Part of this may depend on the behavior and the situation, but the more you frame the situation to their benefit, the more likely they will want to change.
How will being on time for a job benefit them (besides just not losing your job – though that’s a decent benefit in itself!)? How will listening better in meetings benefit?
Help them see it not just as rules or you getting on to them, but you are trying to help them because it also benefits them when they make that change.
Often people are waiting for you to do something about it
Too often, managers take way too long to do anything about the behavior. They may fear people will be upset about it or they don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings.
Whatever the reason, people know the behavior. They likely have to deal with it and possibly pick up the slack, depending on the behavior.
Don’t wait to deal with behaviors. Take actions. Often, the response other employees have is, “What took you so long?”
Final Note on How to Manage Difficult Employees
Managing difficult employees can be a true test of your leadership skills, but it can also be an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to your team’s success.
Your team can become a high-performing unit if you recognize the underlying causes of their behavior, lead with compassion and empathy, establish clear standards, and hold everyone accountable.
Remember, it takes time and work, but with the correct attitude and strategy, you can make even the most difficult circumstance have a favorable outcome for everyone involved.
I hope this helps.
If you have any questions, suggestions, ideas, disagreements, or anything we missed, please let us know in the comments below.
You can find more related articles here.