How to deal with difficult employees

Few things are more frustrating and angst-ridden than dealing with difficult employees, particularly if you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur, where difficult employees can cause greater damage.

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. On the other hand, ignoring the difficult employee will inevitably result in a bigger problem.

There are specific ways of handling problem employees that are more effective than others. As you figure out how to deal with difficult employees in your company, consider these five methods of management intervention.

1. Distinguish between substandard job performance and misconduct

Employers often mistakenly treat poor performance and misconduct cases similarly when they are actually seen very differently in the eyes of the law. The repercussions can be costly for your business. That’s why you should probably get some legal eyes to look at the most difficult cases.

2. Performance often requires “steps” of corrective action

When it comes to performance issues, many companies follow a “three steps before you’re out” type of disciplinary action model, where a verbal warning is followed by a written warning, and then a final written warning. The three-strike approach is typically considered fair by almost all standards, whether employees are union or non-union.

Much will depend, however, on the employee’s tenure and potential membership in a protected class: As a rule, the longer the employee has been employed by your organization, the more expectations he or she may have to continued employment.

In any case, it’s a good idea to confer with legal counsel about when you’re going to terminate a difficult employee. The cost of a $200 legal consultation could easily be dwarfed by litigation costs if you don’t cover your bases.

3. Conduct that provides for more immediate action

Misconduct gives the employer greater discretion in terms of corrective action. You don’t have to take three steps to fire an employee for gross misconduct. In those cases, employers may progress immediately to a final written warning (or even immediate employee termination) for a first offense. Misconduct that typically rises to the level of immediate termination, or “summary offenses,” include:

  • Theft
  • Embezzlement
  • Forgery

That’s easy enough to understand, but an outburst of insubordination, an offensive rumormonger caught in the act, or someone shouting obscenities at a peer may easily qualify for a final written warning based solely on the egregious nature of their actions — even if this is a first-time occurrence. In situations like this, you’re placing the individual in question on notice that this is a “third rail” issue. The message: engage in this type of behavior again and you’ll be firing yourself.

4. Remember that verbal engagements need not be confrontational

Before you move forward with documented corrective action in the form of a written warning, be sure that you first attempt to address the infraction verbally, whenever possible. Spoken respectfully and quietly, your message will carry even more gravity than if shared with emotion or drama of any sort.

Offer to help, make yourself available to support the individual to reach established performance goals, but re-establish performance and productivity expectations. With this approach, strong leadership is constantly supportive but “has the teeth” necessary to escalate matters as needed.

5. Escalate to documented corrective action when appropriate

When discussions and conversations don’t yield the results you were hoping for as the business owner or department leader, then stepping up your game by providing documented disciplinary action is the next logical step. This not only can help to protect your company legally but also escalates the seriousness of the matter in the employee’s mind.

Consider closing your documentation with a statement such as: “Failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement may result in further disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.” Such consequence language in the progressive discipline realm must be exceptionally clear as you focus on how to deal with difficult employees.

In addition, if circumstances warrant, include “last chance agreement” language such as the following: “This is your last chance, and your position is now in immediate jeopardy of being lost.” Whatever language you choose, it’s always a best practice to run it by your legal counsel.

With a firm record of verbal interventions and written corrective action in place, most problematic performers or workers with bad attitudes will simply move on to other organizations. More importantly, you’ll send the right message to the rest of your team that you’re supportive and willing to make yourself part of the solution but also ready to confront substandard conduct or workplace misconduct head-on, without hesitation. That may be the most important management skill of all.

Knowing how to deal with difficult employees starts with the right hiring strategy

Having a strong hiring process is one way to help rid your workplace of difficult employees. But a good hiring process needs a sound recruitment strategy behind it. Get expert information on the best ways to recruit, hire, and maintain best employees by signing up for Monster Hiring Solutions today.

Legal Disclaimer: None of the information provided herein constitutes legal advice on behalf of Monster.