How to Deal with Difficult Employees: A Detailed Guide for Employers

Serious conversation or discussion between manager and difficult employee

Dealing with difficult employees can feel like trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. As a manager or employer, you’ve probably encountered a difficult employee or two, and you know just how challenging such situations can be. Whether it’s a negative attitude, problematic behavior, or poor communication, these issues can disrupt the whole team and lower productivity.

But don't worry – this guide is here to help you understand, manage, and correct behaviors that cause headaches in the workplace. So, let’s dive in and tackle those difficult conversations and bad attitudes with practical, actionable advice.

Identifying difficult employee behavior

Recognizing and addressing difficult employee behavior is essential for maintaining a healthy work environment.

Recognizing poor performance

Poor performance can be a red flag for a difficult employee. Indicators of poor performance include missed deadlines, low-quality work, and a lack of initiative. These signs not only affect the individual’s job but also impact the whole team’s productivity and morale. When you notice these patterns, it's time to provide feedback and set clear expectations to correct behaviors.

Addressing negative attitudes

Negative attitudes are a major concern and can manifest as hostility, lack of cooperation, and unprofessional behavior. Such negative attitude can create a toxic environment and spread to other employees, affecting the overall company culture.

If you spot a bad attitude, it's important to address it directly and provide constructive criticism to encourage behavioral changes.

Dealing with undermining authority

When an employee undermines authority, it can be highly disruptive. Signs include insubordination, spreading negativity, and questioning management decisions publicly. This kind of problematic behavior not only affects the manager but can also lead to poor communication and mistrust within the team.

In such situations, staying calm and addressing the root cause of the behavior is crucial to maintain respect and order in the workplace.

Understanding the root causes

Knowing why difficult behaviors arise can help in addressing them effectively.

Personal issues

Sometimes, a difficult employee’s behavior stems from personal issues outside of work. Problems in personal life, such as family conflicts or health concerns, can affect an employee’s performance and attitude. These issues might lead to disengaged employees who struggle to meet expectations at work. It's essential to provide support and understand the root cause without prying too much into their personal life.

Workplace environment

The workplace environment plays a significant role in shaping employee behavior. A toxic environment or poor company culture can lead to problematic behavior.

If the work environment is negative, with poor communication and lack of support, employees may develop a negative attitude and become difficult to deal with. Ensuring a positive work culture where employees feel valued can prevent many of these issues.

Lack of engagement

Disengaged employees often display undesirable behavior due to lack of engagement. This disengagement can be due to various factors like lack of recognition, unclear expectations, or insufficient challenges in their job.

When employees feel their efforts are not appreciated or they are unclear about their roles, they tend to become less motivated. Providing clear feedback, setting specific examples of what’s expected, and recognizing good work can help re-engage these employees and improve their overall performance.

Effective communication strategies

Good communication is key to dealing with difficult employees and resolving issues.

Focusing on behavior, not personality

When addressing a difficult employee, focus on their behavior, not their personality. This means discussing specific examples of problematic behavior rather than making it about the person themselves. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re always so negative,” try, “I noticed that your comments during meetings have been quite critical.

Can we talk about how we can approach these situations more constructively?” This helps keep the conversation neutral and avoids personal attacks.

Providing constructive feedback

Providing feedback that is clear, actionable, and supportive is crucial. Constructive feedback should be detailed and focus on correct behaviors rather than just pointing out what went wrong. Use a neutral tone and provide specific examples of what needs improvement.

For instance, “Your last report had several errors, which led to confusion with our clients. Let’s go over how we can avoid these mistakes in the future.” This approach helps the employee understand what is expected and how they can improve.

Encouraging open dialogue

Creating a safe space for employees to voice concerns and provide feedback is essential for a healthy work environment. Encourage open dialogue by actively listening and showing empathy. Let employees know that their opinions matter and that they can speak freely without fear of negative repercussions.

This not only helps in understanding the root cause of their behavior but also promotes a culture of trust and transparency within the team. Providing opportunities for regular check-ins and anonymous feedback can further support open communication.

Implementing corrective measures

Taking corrective measures is essential to deal with difficult employees effectively.

Setting clear expectations

To address difficult behavior, start by setting clear expectations. Define roles, responsibilities, and performance standards so that each employee knows exactly what is expected of them. This helps in preventing poor communication and reduces the risk of misunderstanding.

Clear expectations provide a benchmark for measuring performance and behavior, making it easier to identify when an employee undermines the rules or shows a bad attitude.

Developing improvement plans

Developing improvement plans is crucial for helping difficult employees make positive changes. These plans should include specific examples of problematic behavior and outline measurable goals and timelines for improvement.

For instance, if an employee exhibits poor communication, set a goal for them to provide more detailed feedback during meetings. Creating structured improvement plans with input from the employee ensures they understand their responsibilities and the steps needed to meet expectations.

Monitoring progress

Regularly monitoring progress is key to ensuring that improvement plans are effective. Schedule regular check-ins and performance reviews to track the employee's progress and provide constructive feedback.

This continuous monitoring helps in identifying any red flags early and allows for adjustments to be made to the improvement plan as needed. Keeping an eye on progress also ensures that the whole team remains productive and that any issues are addressed promptly, preventing them from escalating into a more difficult situation.

Implementing these corrective measures helps in managing difficult employees and fosters a positive work environment.

By setting clear expectations, developing structured improvement plans, and monitoring progress, managers can effectively deal with difficult behaviors and support their team in achieving better performance.

Preventing difficult behaviors

serious dialogue at work between employee and manager

Preventing difficult behaviors starts with the right strategies and practices in place.

Hiring the right people

The best way to prevent difficult employees is to hire the right people from the start. Use thorough vetting and behavioral interviews to select candidates who fit well with your company culture. Conduct a background check to ensure there are no red flags. By focusing on candidates who exhibit positive attitudes and strong communication styles during interviews, you can reduce the risk of hiring someone who might later display problematic behavior.

Promoting a positive work culture

Building a supportive and inclusive workplace culture is essential for preventing difficult behaviors. A positive work environment where employees feel valued and respected can significantly reduce the occurrence of negative attitudes and disengaged employees. Encourage collaboration, recognize achievements, and address any signs of a toxic environment promptly. When the company culture promotes positivity and support, employees are more likely to exhibit desirable behaviors and stay motivated.

Providing ongoing training and development

Offering continuous learning opportunities is crucial for maintaining high morale and preventing difficult behaviors. Provide regular training and development programs to help employees improve their skills and stay engaged with their jobs. This can include workshops, seminars, and online courses that focus on both technical skills and soft skills like communication and teamwork. By investing in your employees' growth, you not only enhance their productivity but also foster a more positive and cooperative work environment.

Implementing these strategies helps create a workplace where difficult behaviors are less likely to arise, and employees feel supported and motivated to perform their best.

Knowing when to take further action

Sometimes, despite best efforts, further action is necessary to manage difficult employees.

Involving human resources

When dealing with a difficult employee, there comes a point when you need to engage the HR department for support and intervention. If an employee’s problematic behavior persists despite your attempts to provide constructive feedback and support, it’s time to involve human resources. HR can offer additional resources, mediate discussions, and ensure that company policy is followed correctly. They can also provide a neutral tone to difficult conversations and help document the issues for future reference.

Considering disciplinary actions

If involving HR doesn't resolve the issue, considering disciplinary actions might be necessary. Start with formal warnings, clearly outlining the undesirable behavior and the consequences if it continues. Probation periods can be implemented, during which the employee must demonstrate significant behavioral changes. Be sure to provide detailed feedback during this time to help the employee understand what is expected. The goal is to correct behaviors before they escalate to more severe measures.

Making the decision to terminate

When all other measures fail, you may need to evaluate whether termination is the best option. This decision should not be taken lightly, as it impacts the whole team and the organization. Consider if the employee’s continued presence poses a risk to the work environment, clients, or other colleagues. If termination is necessary, proceed professionally, ensuring all steps are in compliance with company policy and legal requirements. Conduct the termination meeting with empathy and clarity to maintain professionalism and respect for the individual.

Taking further action is sometimes the only way to deal with difficult employees effectively. By involving human resources, considering disciplinary actions, and knowing when to terminate, you can protect your team and maintain a productive work environment.


Dealing with difficult employees is never easy, but with the right strategies, you can manage and even prevent such situations from escalating. Recognizing poor performance and addressing negative attitudes early on can make a huge difference. Understanding the root causes of difficult behavior, whether they stem from personal life issues, a toxic environment, or lack of engagement, helps you take appropriate action.

Effective communication is key. Focus on behavior, not personality, and provide constructive criticism that is clear and actionable. Encourage open dialogue to create a supportive work environment where employees feel heard and valued.

When necessary, implement corrective measures by setting clear expectations, developing improvement plans, and monitoring progress. Preventing difficult behaviors starts with hiring the right people and promoting a positive company culture. Provide ongoing training and development to keep employees engaged and motivated.

Know when to take further action. Involve human resources when needed, consider disciplinary actions carefully, and, if all else fails, make the decision to terminate professionally and respectfully.

By following these steps, you can deal with difficult employees effectively, ensuring a positive and productive workplace for the whole team. Remember, addressing difficult behavior early and maintaining open communication can lead to significant improvements in your organization’s culture and productivity.

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Topic: Employees / Difficult Employee