How to Deal with a Difficult Employee

Don't just blow your top or ignore the problem. Take these steps instead.
Before firing a problem employee, give a written performance evaluation and improvement expectations. (Photo: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Despite your best efforts to build a talented, dedicated staff, sometimes an employee turns into a problem or exhibits behaviors that don’t benefit the business. He or she may be chronically late to work, spend shifts sending text messages, be a bully or simply fail to follow directions. In some cases, employees may have personal problems that surface in the workplace.

The best way to avoid problem employees is to never hire them in the first place. But once a problem arises, don’t sweep it under the rug or make a rash decision about firing the person. Take these approaches instead.

Address issues now, not later


According to Susan Ways, a 20-year human resources veteran, once you identify a problem you should address it immediately.

“Once you identify a problem, address it immediately, don’t wait,” said Susan Ways, a 20-year human resources veteran and president of Maryland-based Inspired Success Coaching. “Don’t excuse it away. Don’t let it go. Don’t think that by some type of osmosis the person will wake up tomorrow and be different.”

Ways offers counseling and coaching for situations like these. But essentially, the manager should state the issue when it first presents itself and then state the expected adjustment. If adjustments aren’t made after one to three warnings, it may be time to release the employee.

Ways advised, “When you see and hear about the behavior, have a real conversation with them and say, here’s our expectation: ‘You won’t use your cell phone during your shift’ or ‘you will treat customers kindly.’ Or ‘I saw this behavior on this day and at this time, and that’s not acceptable and we need immediate and sustained improvement on this.’”

Document issues, know the law and have a plan


“Never assume that employment laws don’t apply to your company.” -Luba Sydor

Dealing with a problem employee sometimes means firing them. But first give the employee a written performance evaluation outlining the problems and a performance improvement plan that establishes expectations for immediate improvement. These documents will help cover you legally in the event the employee decides to sue you for something like age, gender or disability discrimination.

It’s also a good idea to review employment law around any relevant issues so you know if your rules and expectations are on the right side of the law.

“Never assume that employment laws don’t apply to your company,” said Luba S. Sydor, founder and CEO of Person2Person consulting in White Plains, New York. “Ignoring them can cost your small business millions of dollars — or at least more than you realize.”

How to avoid problem employees in the first place

Again, the best way to deal with a problem employee is to avoid having one. These tips should help.

Establish expectations early. “This really starts with your hiring process,” said Ways. “If you are a restaurant owner and somebody is always on their cell phone, ask the question in the interview process: ‘How do you feel about working in a job where you can’t pick up your cell phone during your work shift?’” Once you determine the largest potential issue you could have, “Make sure you’re setting some of those expectations and having a dialogue about that up front. If you have a real conversation with people and not just formulaic questions you get more thoughtful and not canned responses.”

Engage all employees in the company’s mission. “Small business owners should make sure employees thoroughly understand the mission and vision of the company,” said Chicago-based HR expert Shemaiah Hedrick. “If employees have a clear understanding of why the company exists, where the company is trying to go and how they can help make it happen, it keeps them engaged and motivated and out of trouble.”

Watch for signs of trouble. Problem employees usually present themselves early.
“They tend to be disgruntled, suspicious and apathetic employees and, generally, they have chronic attendance issues, performance issues and disciplinary issues,” said Sydor. She said it’s important to identify where the issues are coming from so the root cause can be addressed.

In the end, by carefully screening potential employees, setting clear job performance expectations, regularly sharing your passion for the company’s mission and explaining each employee’s role in achieving it, you’re more likely to have the staff of your dreams.

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