How to Deal With Difficult Employees

A woman works from home.

It’s essential to know how to deal with difficult employees. Addressing problematic workplace issues often begins with uncomfortable conversations and ends with dismissal—at a cost of up to $4,000 per replacement hire.

When the problem employee is a manager, the problems can be even more acute and the damage more costly. Poor leadership is a primary reason good employees quit. Addressing management issues can also reduce problematic employee behavior.

Poor performers can become a drag on your productivity and earnings, torpedo workplace morale, and tarnish your organization’s reputation with customers and clients. Addressing substandard employee performance and misconduct issues consistently and proactively will help you increase employee productivity, protect your company from legal exposure, and restore camaraderie to your team.

Poor Performance, Unprofessional Behavior, and Misconduct: What’s the Difference?

Employers often mistakenly treat poor performance, unprofessional behavior, and misconduct cases interchangeably. However, these varying levels of problematic work behaviors are viewed very differently in the eyes of the law. Retaining an employee whose work record indicates a pattern of behavior that might endanger coworkers or customers could make you legally liable for future harm. Disappointing performance, on the other hand, may be the result of an onboarding or training program in need of tweaking, or even a sign of problematic management practices.

Helping managers learn how to deal with difficult employees by writing policies that take into account varying degrees of problem behaviors and their appropriate solutions can improve employee performance and protect your assets.

How to Correct Poor Performance

When the issue is merely disappointing performance, it is far less costly to do what you can to train and develop the talent you have than it is to hastily let someone go only to have to begin your recruitment, onboarding, and training process all over again.

There are many effective ways to turn a disappointing performer into a prized employee:

  • Pair them with a more seasoned coworker who can serve as a mentor
  • Give them a small project that is entirely their own to improve engagement
  • Offer to address missing skills
  • Create a performance improvement plan

If you determine that an employee is uninterested in improving their performance or unlikely to, you will need to begin creating evidence that their work has remained unsatisfactory despite attempts to help them improve and ample warning that failure to improve would result in dismissal.

Many companies use a “three strikes” model, with a series of written warnings before termination. Even in union workplaces, this approach is considered a fair practice.

How to Deal With Difficult Employees Who Exhibit Unprofessional Behavior

Since company culture can vary from one professional setting to the next, a simple failure to adhere to office etiquette may warrant no more than a simple verbal redirection. Minor etiquette issues might include:

  • Interrupting professional conversations
  • Failing to keep personal confidential information private
  • Oversharing
  • Asking coworkers overly personal questions
  • Failing to respect personal boundaries

It can be a bit embarrassing to commit an office faux pas, so be prepared to coach the offending employee on how to recover from mistakes by making sincere apologies. Assure them that they can gain back their coworkers’ trust and respect through consistent professional behavior.

Some forms of unprofessional behavior may require an employer to proceed immediately to a final written warning for a first offense. This lets the employee know that this behavior will not be tolerated and that if it is repeated, they will be fired. Serious instances of unprofessional behavior that may rise to this level might include:

  • Insubordination
  • Spreading rumors about coworkers or clients
  • Profanity, especially within the hearing of customers, clients, or minors
  • Failing to adhere to your organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policy

How to Deal With Misconduct

Some forms of employee misconduct leave employers with little choice but to respond with termination. Misconduct that typically rises to the level of immediate termination, often referred to as “summary dismissal,” includes:

When responding to bad behavior that rises to the level of illegal activity or that places your organization in jeopardy of legal liability, you cannot afford to undertake the three steps rule—too much is at stake.

Corrective Measures

For all but the most damaging employee misbehavior, corrective action should begin with the least disruptive and formalized response possible.

First Steps: Talking It Out

Gentle coaching and on-the-job training are all that are needed to address most workplace performance issues. Most employees want to do a good job, and what looks like poor performance or even unprofessional behavior may simply be the result of a missing skill or miscommunication.

Underperformance and unprofessional behavior can also be caused by an interpersonal conflict between coworkers, departments, or employees and their managers. Remediation with an outside party, such as an HR manager or a consultant, can clear up conflicts and steer participants toward a more productive relationship. Whatever the cause, document your intervention efforts.

Next Steps: Get It in Writing

When dealing with difficult employees who have failed to improve, the next step is to issue written warnings that lay out the potential consequences if performance remains sub-par. Not only can this protect your company from potential legal liability, but a written warning may be just the wake-up call the employee needs.

For all but the most serious misconduct, implement a three-step approach, with each step placing the employee closer to termination. Consider closing your third issued reprimand with a statement such as: “Failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”

Final Steps: How to Fire an Employee

Once you’ve given a problem employee every chance to improve, and documented their failure to do so, you can take the necessary step of ending their employment with you. You may even need to take this step immediately in the event of extreme misconduct.

Once you have determined that dismissal is the only option, make sure to fire them face-to-face in a manner that is as professional and impersonal as possible with a third-party witness, preferably an HR manager, present. Provide a dated letter of termination and payment for their final wages and any unused PTO they are owed at the same time. In some cases, you may want to confer with legal counsel to make sure your reasons for termination comply with federal and local laws.

Weeding Out Difficult Employees Can Boost Your Employer Brand

Quite often, difficult employees will get the message at some point during your corrective process, opting for an exit ramp long before you get to the dismissal stage. Either way, adhering to a well-mapped-out set of procedures to deal with problematic employees can help underscore your expectations to the entire team, assuring your top performers that you recognize and value their efforts.

By showing compassion and offering support for struggling employees and confronting problem performance and behavior head-on, you will establish your company as a workplace where professionalism is expected and rewarded.

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Now that you know how to deal with difficult employees, learn more about the latest management and hiring news, including ways to optimize employee performance.

Legal Disclaimer: This article is not intended as a substitute for professional legal advice. Always seek the advice of an attorney regarding any legal questions you may have.