June 12, 2024    |    By

Keeping your company’s employees happy and motivated is essential for running a successful business. Ideally, everyone on your team should work together towards common goals and objectives. 

Unfortunately, in every organization, there will be employees who are difficult to manage. If left unaddressed, these employees can cause disruptions and conflicts, negatively impacting the overall work environment. As a leader within your company, you are responsible for effectively dealing with difficult employees and creating a safe and productive workplace for everyone. 

Of course, dealing with difficult employees is a lot easier said than done. After all, it can be challenging to address problematic workplace behavior and attitudes while maintaining a positive work environment. However, ignoring these issues will only lead to more significant problems down the line, such as decreased productivity, conflicts within the team, and even potential legal issues.

With that in mind, the following guide will provide some practical insights on handling difficult employees within your organization.

What Is Considered As A “Difficult Employee”?

A difficult employee can be defined as someone who consistently displays behavior or attitudes that cause problems within the workplace. This can include actions such as insubordination, constant complaining, negative attitude, and lack of productivity. Because the issues caused by difficult employees can vary, understanding what makes an employee difficult will allow you to better address their behavior and find effective solutions.

The following are some common types of difficult employees:

The Micromanager

Unfortunately, difficult employees aren’t just relegated to entry-level positions or front-line staff. In some cases, your managers can be the source of conflict within a team. For example, at some point, you may have problems with a supervisor who refuses to delegate responsibilities and insists on controlling every aspect of their team’s work. 

Micromanaging like this can lead to overbearing supervision and excessive involvement in tasks that should be handled by the employees themselves. This can stifle creativity, hinder productivity, and create a toxic work environment.

The Underperformer

An underperforming employee is not necessarily a problematic employee. However, their lack of productivity can still create issues within the workplace. An underperformer may constantly miss deadlines, have a negative attitude toward work, or consistently make mistakes that affect the team’s overall performance. 

Not only can an underperforming employee affect your company’s bottom line, but their actions can also affect their coworkers’ productivity, since they may have to pick up the slack for the underperformer.

The Disruptive Influence

An employee who is a disruptive influence can cause significant issues within the workplace by creating conflicts, tension, or drama. They may be argumentative, have a negative attitude toward their coworkers, or constantly stir up trouble within the team. 

For example, a disruptive influence may spread rumors or gossip, refuse to work with certain individuals, or be openly hostile toward others. It’s worth noting that such employees aren’t always negative—they can also be a disruptive influence by socializing too much and distracting other team members from their tasks.

Not only can this type of employee disrupt the overall work environment, but it can also lead to decreased productivity and team cohesion.

The Chronic Complainer

There’s a fine line between providing constructive criticism and constantly complaining about every aspect of the job. While listening to employee feedback is essential, chronic complainers tend to nitpick about everything and never seem satisfied with their work or environment. 

This type of behavior can quickly bring down the morale of other team members and create a hostile atmosphere within the workplace. This is especially true if they constantly complain about their coworkers, thereby creating a rift within the team, or influencing others to join in on their negativity, thereby creating a toxic work culture.

The Lone Wolf

Some employees may be great at their individual work but struggle when collaborating with others. These employees tend to work independently and may not communicate or share ideas effectively with the rest of the team. They may also refuse to participate in group projects, leading to resentment from coworkers who feel they are carrying the workload alone. If left unaddressed, a “lone wolf” can harm team dynamics and hinder overall productivity.

Root Causes Of Difficult Behavior 

When dealing with difficult employees, the goal should be to address the root cause of their behavior. Ignoring the problem will only allow it to persist and potentially escalate into more significant issues. 

Firing the employee you’ve deemed difficult is rarely the solution, either. This is because you should understand and address what may have caused their behavior in the first place. After all, if the root of their behavior is the result of an issue within your organization, it may eventually cause other employees to act out as well.

Additionally, firing an employee can lead to legal consequences if not done for justifiable reasons. On top of that, they may still be valuable to your organization, and replacing them can be time-consuming and costly. The following are some of the possible factors that could contribute to an employee’s challenging behavior:

Personal Factors

When it comes to human behavior, personal factors play a significant role in how somebody acts. This includes factors such as upbringing, past experiences, mental health issues, and personality traits. So, it’s no surprise that personal factors can cause an employee to act out at work. The following are a few examples of personal issues that could be contributing to an employee’s problematic behavior:

  • Stress and burnout: Constant stress and burnout can lead to negative behavior, such as aggression, irritability, and lack of motivation. These issues can be caused by workload, personal problems, or workplace factors such as a toxic work environment. Employees who are stressed out or burning out tend to be more prone to complaining and underperforming. 
  • Personal problems: An employee’s personal life can also greatly impact their behavior in the workplace. Personal problems such as financial issues, relationship troubles, or health concerns can make an employee more challenging to work with. They may bring these issues into the workplace, causing them to be easily triggered or emotionally unstable.
  • Communication issues: Poor communication skills can also contribute to an employee’s difficult behavior. This could include difficulty expressing themselves, understanding others, or listening effectively. As a result, they may come across as confrontational or uncooperative in the workplace.

Organizational Factors

It’s important to understand that personal issues are not the only factors that can contribute to an employee’s difficult behavior. Organizational factors can also play a significant role, and you must recognize and address these issues to create a positive work environment. After all, if organizational factors are at fault for a particular employee’s problematic behavior, you can assume that these factors will only continue to affect other employees as well. 

Some examples of organizational factors that could lead to difficulties among employees include:

  • Poor leadership: A lack of effective leadership can be a significant contributor to difficult behavior in the workplace. Employees may feel unmotivated or frustrated if they don’t have strong guidance and support from their superiors. This can lead to resistance to change, micromanaging, or a negative attitude towards authority. Poor leadership can also make employees feel undervalued or unfairly treated, leading to resentment and problematic behavior.
  • Toxic work culture: A work culture that is toxic can be extremely damaging to employee behavior and well-being. This could include bullying, discrimination, favoritism, or a lack of inclusivity in the workplace. When employees feel mistreated or unsupported by their colleagues and superiors, they may respond with difficult behavior as a way to cope.
  • Inadequate training: The need for proper training can’t be overstated, especially in today’s fast-paced and constantly evolving work environment. Employees who feel unprepared or undertrained for their jobs may become frustrated and have difficulty meeting expectations. This could lead to disruptive behavior or a lack of confidence in their performance, which can negatively impact team dynamics and overall productivity.
  • Lack of clear expectations: If your employees are unsure of what is expected of them or how their job performance will be evaluated, it can result in confusion and frustration. This could lead to resistance to change or a lack of motivation to perform well. Poor communication is often the cause of a lack of clear expectations, leading to misunderstandings and conflict within the workplace.

The Importance Of Handling These Types Of Employees

Dealing with difficult employees is crucial for maintaining a positive and productive work environment. Sometimes, an employer might dismiss an employee’s difficult behavior if they don’t think it’s a big deal. This may be the case if that employee is still performing well in their job. However, ignoring such behavior can have a significant impact on both the business and other employees:

  • Impact on business: Difficult employees can cause disruptions in the workplace that can affect overall business productivity. Their negative behavior may cause conflicts with coworkers, decrease team dynamics, and lower morale among other employees. In addition, their behavior can eventually affect their job performance, even if it’s not immediately noticeable. Finally, such behavior can pose a significant problem if your clients or customers are exposed to it, potentially damaging the company’s reputation.
  • Impact on other employees: Difficult employees can negatively impact their coworkers. For instance, other employees may be forced to pick up the slack or deal with increased stress due to the difficult employee’s behavior. This can lead to resentment and frustration, resulting in decreased morale and motivation among other team members. Furthermore, if an employer does not address the issue with the employee, it can create a toxic work environment that affects everyone’s well-being.

Essential Role Of Cultivating A Healthy Workplace For Employees

Creating a healthy workplace is crucial for addressing and resolving issues related to difficult employees. A healthy workplace is one that promotes mental, physical, and emotional well-being for all of your employees. Having a healthy workplace can go a long way towards preventing behavioral issues from arising in the first place.

The following are some of the ways that you can help alleviate or resolve issues related to difficult employees:

  • Address issues promptly: When problematic behavior arises, addressing it as soon as possible is critical. This not only prevents the problem from escalating but also shows other employees that such behavior will not be tolerated. Furthermore, addressing such behavior right away will help prevent it from affecting the overall team dynamics and productivity.
  • Value the employee’s viewpoint and remain open-minded: When dealing with difficult employees, listening to their perspectives and being open-minded is essential. Immediately dismissing their concerns or opinions and blaming them for their behavior can create further conflict and resistance. By listening to their viewpoint, you can identify the root causes of their difficult behavior and work towards finding a solution together.
  • Demonstrate empathy and authentic concern when communicating: When addressing difficult behavior, communicate with empathy and authentic concern. This means actively listening to the employee, acknowledging their feelings, and showing them that you care about finding a resolution. Demonstrating empathy and understanding can build trust and create a more positive working relationship with the employee.
  • Avoid sandwiching criticism with praise: It’s common for employers to use the “sandwich” approach when addressing problematic behavior, where they start with a positive comment, deliver criticism, and end with another positive comment. However, this can often backfire as the employee may only remember the praise and ignore the criticism. Instead, provide clear and direct feedback while still acknowledging any positive qualities or contributions the employee may have.
  • Focus on raising awareness of behaviors rather than fixing the individual: Focus on raising awareness of the problematic behaviors rather than “fixing” the individual. This means addressing specific behaviors and their impact on others instead of trying to change the person’s personality or character. By bringing attention to the behavior, you can work towards finding a solution with the employee while also emphasizing that certain actions are unacceptable in the workplace.
  • Foster a supportive atmosphere for feedback exchanges: Lastly, creating a supportive atmosphere for feedback exchanges is crucial in dealing with difficult employees. This means encouraging open and honest communication between all employees and providing them with the resources they need to address whatever issues may arise. By fostering an environment that is safe and respectful of feedback, you can prevent conflicts from escalating and promote healthy communication among all team members.

Understanding Relevant Employment Laws And Regulations

Dealing with difficult employees is a touchy subject, and it’s important to understand the relevant employment laws and regulations when addressing these issues. This helps ensure fairness and consistency in disciplinary actions and protects both the employer and employee from any potential legal consequences.

Some of the legal considerations you should keep in mind include:

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Guidelines: The EEOC enforces federal laws against employee discrimination based on race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin, disability, or genetic information. When dealing with difficult employees, it’s vital to ensure that any disciplinary actions are not discriminatory towards these protected classes. For example, if an employee exhibits difficult behavior because of a disability, you must make reasonable accommodations as required by law.
  • Anti-discrimination laws: In addition to the EEOC guidelines, various federal and state anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination based on other characteristics such as pregnancy, marital status, and sexual orientation. You need to be aware of these laws and ensure that disciplinary actions do not violate them. For instance, if an employee is exhibiting difficult behavior because they are dealing with discrimination, whether in their personal or professional life, you should address the underlying issues rather than simply letting them go.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): The FMLA entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific medical or family reasons. When dealing with difficult employees who may have certain serious health conditions or have to care for family members, it’s essential to understand their rights under the FMLA and provide appropriate accommodations.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): The FLSA sets standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor in the United States. You must ensure that you comply with these standards when dealing with difficult employees regarding pay and working hours. For example, you can’t withhold pay as a form of punishment for their behavior.
  • Employment contracts and handbooks: You should carefully review any employment contracts or handbooks to ensure that you follow the agreed-upon policies and procedures when dealing with difficult employees. For example, the handbook may outline a specific disciplinary process you must follow before terminating an employee.
  • At-will employment laws: Most states follow the “at-will” employment rule, which means that as the employer, you can terminate one of your employees at any time for any reason (or no reason) as long as no illegal discrimination or retaliation is involved. However, you must be familiar with your state’s specific at-will employment laws to avoid any potential legal issues.
  • Consulting with legal counsel: In some cases, you may need to consult with legal counsel when dealing with difficult employees, especially if the situation involves potential legal consequences. It’s always better to seek legal advice before taking any disciplinary actions to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations.

How The Human Resource Department Helps Manage Challenging Employees

An effective human resource (HR) department is critical to managing challenging employees. While managers and team leaders play a significant role in addressing such behavior, HR professionals bring unique skills and expertise to the table to help manage these situations effectively. Here are some ways an HR department can assist in dealing with difficult employees:

  • Creating and implementing policies: The HR department is responsible for creating and implementing policies regarding employee conduct, performance expectations, and disciplinary procedures. This helps provide a clear framework for handling difficult employees while ensuring consistency across all teams.
  • Mediating conflict resolution: As trained mediators, HR professionals can handle conflicts between employees and resolve them fairly and impartially. By facilitating open communication and finding common ground, they can help diffuse difficult situations and prevent them from escalating further.
  • Providing training and development: Sometimes, difficult behavior may stem from a lack of skills or knowledge. Offering relevant training and development opportunities to your employees can help them improve their performance, thereby addressing any underlying issues.
  • Ensuring compliance with laws and regulations: As discussed earlier, the HR department plays a crucial role in ensuring compliance with local, state, and federal employment laws and regulations. This includes educating managers on discrimination laws, leave entitlements, and other legal considerations when dealing with challenging employees.
  • Protecting the company’s interests: The HR department helps protect the company’s interests by ensuring that all necessary documentation is in place when addressing difficult employees. This includes keeping records of performance evaluations, disciplinary actions, and any other relevant documentation that may be needed in the event of legal disputes.
  • Ensuring employee well-being: The HR department is responsible for employee well-being. This includes addressing any employee concerns or issues, offering support and resources for mental health and wellness, and promoting a positive work culture. By prioritizing employee well-being, HR professionals can help prevent problematic behavior from arising in the first place.

The role of the human resource department goes beyond dealing with difficult employees. It is also crucial in handling other aspects of the business, such as recruitment, training and development, compensation and benefits, and employee relations. By having a dedicated team of HR professionals, you can ensure that your employees are supported, motivated, and guided toward success.

Get Expert Employee Relations Assistance from Professional Organizations

Implementing an in-house HR department can be costly and time-consuming for small and mid-sized businesses. Many organizations turn to professional employer organizations (PEOs), for HR outsourcing services as a solution. At O2 Employment Services, we are a PEO that offers comprehensive HR support and assistance to businesses of all sizes.

We partner with small and medium-sized businesses as their PEO to provide support in various areas of human resources, including employee relations. Here are some ways our HR outsourcing services can help your company handle challenging employees:

  • Access to experienced professionals: At O2, we have a team of experienced HR professionals who are well-versed in handling difficult employee situations. We bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise in employment laws, conflict resolution, performance management, and more.
  • Customized solutions: Every business is unique, and so are their HR needs. We work closely with each of our clients to understand their specific requirements and create customized solutions that best fit their organization’s culture and goals.
  • Reduced legal risk: By partnering with us at O2, your business can benefit from having a team of experts who stay updated on the latest employment laws and regulations. This helps reduce legal risk and ensure compliance in all HR-related matters.
  • Efficient management: With O2 handling HR tasks such as payroll processing, employee relations, and benefits administration, you can focus on growing your business without worrying about day-to-day HR issues.
  • Cost savings: Partnering with a PEO like O2 can result in significant cost savings for your organization. Instead of hiring an entire HR team, your company can outsource its HR needs at a fraction of the cost.

Effectively Manage Hard-to-Handle Employees for Organizational Growth

Dealing with difficult employees is a challenging but necessary task for any organization. With the right strategies and support from HR professionals, these situations can be effectively managed to promote a positive work culture and drive organizational growth. HR departments play a crucial role in handling difficult employees by creating policies, mediating conflicts, providing training, ensuring compliance, protecting company interests, and prioritizing employee well-being. 

Partnering with professional organizations like O2 can provide businesses with expert assistance in managing employee relations while offering cost savings and customized solutions tailored to the organization’s specific needs. Contact us at O2 Employment Services to learn more about our HR outsourcing services and how we can help your organization effectively manage difficult employees for long-term success.

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This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created between the author and reader of this blog post, and its content should not be relied upon as legal advice. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel when seeking legal advice.

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