Managing Difficult Employees and Avoiding the Spread of Discontent

Are you and your staff dealing with a difficult employee who may be adequate—even good—at their job but who constantly complains and stirs up discontent? As Harvard Business Review points out, the danger with these employees is that their behavior can easily spread to and infect others on your team.

Such difficult employees can affect your department’s bottom line more than you might think. In fact, a negative attitude can have a far bigger ripple effect on a department than one employee’s deficient skills. That’s why, when it comes to managing difficult employees, it’s crucial to face the potentially toxic problem head-on.

Provide Clear Expectations for Employee Behavior

Actress Mae West was famous for saying, “It’s not what I say; it’s the way that I say it. It’s not what I do; it’s the way that I do it.” It’ll make your job easier if your employees understand that their job isn’t just about what they accomplish, but also how they accomplish it.

Clearly articulate to your department that you expect more than just efficient individual contributions by your staff. Rather, each person is responsible for building a respectful, collaborative team environment that supports the department’s productivity, goals, and the company as a whole.

Another helpful strategy is to rate, in employee performance reviews, each staff member’s contribution to the overall functioning and morale of the department. This way, there’s less of a chance someone will claim they are being singled out. Generalize this expectation to all staff. Send and regularly reinforce the message that how employees work with each other and support the overarching goals of the department are as much performance variables as meeting sales figures or project deadlines.

Consult HR

Because it’s hard to quantify these so-called “soft” interpersonal issues, many supervisors have trouble effectively managing difficult employees. They avoid taking steps toward change until they are frustrated and the department’s morale has already been affected.

Even before you have an uncomfortable conversation with your negative employee, take a first step by consulting your human resources department. The HR folks can advise you on needed documentation, time frames, and how your organization’s own culture addresses these issues.

Confront Your Trouble Employee Tactfully

Most managers do not enjoy tackling thorny personnel issues. But fear not, the following steps can help ensure that you handle the situation tactfully:

  • Stay calm: Park your own frustration at the door. By the time many managers finally confront a negative employee, they’ve been picking up the pieces for quite a while, helping other staff cope with the negativity, and even designing workarounds to maintain peace. Despite the mounting frustration, airing it in this context will only diminish your chances of fixing the problem.
  • Avoid attitude: Don’t describe the employee’s issue as an attitude problem. This is too subjective and will probably be viewed as personal dislike rather than a legitimate performance problem. Cite specific examples, drawing the relationship between the negative behavior and staff productivity and morale.
  • Provide resources: Refer them to resources that can coax them out of a negative pattern of behavior. Many organizations have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that confidentially advise employees. By doing this, you identify the problem behavior and also send the message that you want the person to change and are willing to help in this endeavor.

Remaining calm, objective, and helpful will increase your chances for achieving a favorable outcome for both the employee and your department.

Are You Managing Difficult Employees? We Can Help

By addressing difficult employees, you send the message that you’re a strong manager who’s up to the task — and you reinforce the contributions of your hardworking staff. But it’s not always easy to know what to do in every situation. That’s why it helps to have a partner like Monster as we understand the challenges employers face. Stay connected with us for free access to the latest expert insights on how to build and maintain a high performing workforce.