Difficult employees are a fact of life for every manager and small-business owner, and its often hard to manage difficult staff in one of a number of different ways. Maybe your problem employee has a hard time getting along with others at the office, or maybe he or she has performance issues. Some employees are just difficult to relate to while others are affable and clearly mean well, but nevertheless miss the mark more often than not.


Fortunately, you can probably deal with a difficult staff member by confronting the problem directly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have to fire the person. Often, by listening to his or her side of things, giving clear feedback, setting consequences, and supporting the person to change, you can help make problem employees grow into productive and hardworking members of your workforce.


Listen to What the Problem Employee Has to Say

It might seem like a simple solution, but often, listening to what a difficult employee has to say can go a long way toward clearing up the problem. Almost all employees will be difficult at different stages of their lives and careers, due to personal stress, life milestones, illness, or even concerns about the job or company. Most of the time, listening to the employee will tell you everything you need to know about the motivations for his or her difficult behavior — and it may even reveal some solutions to the problem. You may learn that your employee is upset about some legitimate issues with his or her job or with the company. Even giving your employee an opportunity to talk about the factors affecting his or her work performance can make that employee feel cared about and heard and improve his or her performance.

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Give Feedback and Set Consequences

Your problematic employee can’t improve his or her behavior if you never give him or her clear, concrete feedback about what specific behaviors are detrimental and how to change them. It’s not easy to give this kind of feedback, but it’s a skill worth learning if you hope to succeed as a manager.


Remember, when you confront a person to give him or her feedback about his or her behavior, make the conversation about the behavior, not about the person. Your goal is to end the behavior, not attack your employee. Use “I” statements like “I need everyone to get to work on time so the team can get started” instead of “you” statements like “you’ve been late to work every day for two weeks.” Give the person the benefit of the doubt, especially if this is your first confrontation about the matter. Don’t assume the employee is behaving badly out of ill intent. He or she may be struggling with some kind of personal issue that is affecting his or her performance.


Consequences are important if you hope to inspire the difficult employee to change. Some employees will change bad behavior with little prodding, especially if it’s minor bad behavior like being late for work often. Other employees need more incentive, such as the possibility of disciplinary action or even termination, in order to inspire them to change bad behavior. Support the person to change by allowing him or her to decide how he or she will improve performance.

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Know When to Let a Difficult Employee Go

If your employee fails to change his or her behavior, even after multiple warnings, it’s likely time to let him or her go. It can be easy to run afoul of the law when firing an employee for misconduct, and it’s important to keep thorough records of the employee’s behavior and your attempts to help the employee improve. It might be best to outsource disciplinary behaviors to a PEO so you can be confident that they’ll be handled according to state and federal laws.


Of course, you may never need to let your difficult employee go. Many problem employees improve their behavior with just a brief chat, or an informal disciplinary meeting. Some employee problems may take a little more work on your part to overcome. For example, an employee with a history of workplace bullying or with undiagnosed psychiatric problems needs more help than an employee who spends too much work time looking at cat pictures on the Internet. In fact, some employees may need professional help in order to resolve work-performance problems.


If you’re a small-business owner or manager, it’s just a matter of time before you run into your first problem employee — if you haven’t already. The good news is that you can usually bring these difficult staff members around, with a little supportive nudging in the right direction.