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The term “difficult employee” is typically used to refer to a worker who fails to conduct himself or herself in a responsible, professional manner in the workplace. Effective dealing with these types of workers can be among the greatest challenges that face business owners and managers. After all, few people relish the prospect of disciplining or criticizing other people, either in or out of the work environment.

But when problem employees emerge as an issue in the workplace, their failings must be addressed quickly and decisively. Otherwise, they can significantly erode company morale and efficiency. For many entrepreneurs, disciplining employees is very difficult. They tend to put it off, hoping the problems resolve themselves. But things just get worse.

Problematic employee behavior can take many different forms. Examples of such behavior range from pervasive negativism, which can be particularly dangerous because it so easily spreads to other employees, to abusive language and behavior towards co-workers, clients, customers, managers, or the business owner. Other problems may include tardiness, shoddy and unprofessional work, substance abuse, or unappealing personality traits, any of which can disrupt business efficiency and hurt company teamwork and morale.

In many cases, this unwelcome behavior is symptomatic of a general lack of motivation or focus on the part of the worker, and it can be stopped or curtailed by taking effective intervention steps. But in other cases, problem employees may be simply unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to make themselves productive members of the company workforce. In such instances, termination of employment may be the only alternative for the business owner or manager.


Several steps that entrepreneurs should take when dealing with a difficult employee include:

Written performance/behavior guidelines.

First, companies should maintain a written record of its worker behavior policies and make them readily available to all employees. These guidelines should include definitions of poor performance and gross misconduct and detailed descriptions of performance and termination of review procedures.

Take Stock of the Situation

In most business settings, workers spend long hours in close proximity to one another, interacting with each other both professionally and socially. Inevitably, each of these employees will exhibit certain personality traits, some of which may annoy coworkers, managers, or the owner of the business. But a mildly overbearing, cocky, or whiny demeanor on the part of an employee is not in itself cause for intervention.

A business owner or manager who attempts to stamp out every personality manifestation that he/she finds to be mildly unpleasant will quickly alienate his/her entire workforce and hamper the company’s ability to focus its energy on business issues. But when employee behavior or attitudes reaches a point that it begins to have a negative impact on coworkers or the health of the business itself, the business owner or manager needs to intercede quickly.

Take Control of the Situation

If a problem employee situation does arise, the business owner or supervisor should schedule a meeting time to discuss their actions or behavior. This meeting time should be scheduled so that both the supervisor and the employee can focus on the issues at hand and speak without being disturbed.

Keep in mind that while it is unwise to hold such a meeting when emotions are running high, issues of poor performance need to be addressed in a timely manner. Performance problems, whether they take the form of insubordination, tardiness, poor work performance, or problematic behavior with other employees, may intensify or multiply if not addressed. Employees who do not perform up to expected standards – whether knowingly or unknowingly – will continue to do so if their unacceptable behavior is not challenged.

Take Individual Differences into Consideration

Business owners often assume that workers possess the same skills and knowledge that they do. But some meetings with “difficult” employees reveal that their inadequate work performance is rooted in a lack of skills rather than laziness or indifference. In such cases, instruction and education, rather than disciplinary measures, are the keys to making the employee a valuable part of the workforce.

In other instances, the employee may be grappling with personal issues that have had a deleterious impact on his/her performance. In such cases, business owners and managers can, at their discretion, implement measures that may enable the employee to weather his/her difficulties and become a valuable member of the workforce..

Judge all Employees the Same

Use the same criteria of performance and behavior evaluation with all employees. Employees want to believe that disciplinary procedures are fair.

Use facts

When confronting a difficult employee, business owners and supervisors are encouraged to focus on two or three specific instances when the employee exhibited problematic behavior. Whenever possible, use measurable and observable facts to explain the problem from your perspective. Establish the link between the employee’s unacceptable behavior and/or performance and the overall health and direction of the company.

Try to Avoid Appearing Adversarial

Frame yourself as an ally who is interested in helping the problem employee improve his/her performance. Try to convince the employee that your meeting is in essence a collaborative effort to solve performance/behavior issues.

Establish Consequences and Follow Through

Business owners and managers need to make it clear to problem employees that there are consequences for continued inappropriate or substandard behavior. Choose these consequences with care, however. Tell an employee who doesn’t give a hoot about climbing the corporate ladder that he/she may lose out on a possible promotion, and will get no results. For a consequence to matter and actually make a difference, it needs to matter to the employee.

One way in which owners and supervisors can serve notice to a difficult employee that they are serious about imposing discipline and correcting behavior is to schedule a follow-up meeting during the initial meeting . Scheduling a second meeting puts the employee on notice that his and.or performance is regarded as a serious matter that will be monitored on a regular basis.

Acknowledge Improvements

Finally, business owners and managers need to recognize instances in which a problem employee makes a genuine effort to correct his/her workplace shortcomings. Without such acknowledgments, an employee is more likely to slide back into negative patterns of performance and/or interaction with coworkers.

Terminating Problem Employees

Some difficult employees will resist all management efforts to convince them to change their behavior or attitudes. In these cases, termination of employment may be necessary. This is not a step to be taken lightly, especially if the problem employee provides important services to the company (as in the case of a verbally abusive employee who nonetheless is a good computer programmer). But in some cases, it is necessary in order to maintain – or – restore company morale and efficiency in other areas.

If behavior-related termination is warranted, businesses should make sure they document the employee’s shortcomings in specific, quantifiable terms. Personnel files should include accounts of specific incidents of poor performance; summaries of meetings held with the employee and other company-initiated efforts to correct behavior; and any formal warnings of probation or dismissal.

Bernard Taiwo

I am Management strategist, Editor and Publisher.

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