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Dealing With Difficult Employees: A Step-By-Step Plan

Managers discussing dealing with difficult employees

As a manager, it’s important to be prepared for dealing with difficult employees. If you aren’t, the employees’ behavior can quickly become toxic and spread to other members of your team.

That can lead to drops in productivity and motivation, a breakdown in communication, disunity within the team, frustration, and even possible job abandonment by the high-performing employees you want to keep most.

Don’t let a difficult employee infect the unity of your team.

In this article, the management experts at Sling provide a step-by-step plan for dealing with difficult employees so you can keep your team and your business running smoothly.

Dealing With Difficult Employees Early On

Manager meeting and dealing with a difficult employee

The best way to deal with a difficult employee before they cause problems in your business is to not hire them in the first place.

That may seem obvious right now, but during the interview process, it’s all too easy to overlook the red flags and allow an interviewee’s good qualities to overshadow everything else.

Fortunately, there’s another way you can prevent issues right from the start. Before the employee in question has a chance to wreak havoc, implement an onboarding process and continuous on-the-job training.

With effective onboarding, training, and advancement opportunities, you provide a sense of accomplishment for all of your employees — not just the difficult ones — that translates into more skills, better preparation, and a happier, engaged team.

For more helpful information on perfecting your interviewing skills and on-the-job training processes, take a few minutes to review these resources:

Unfortunately, even with a rigorous interview process, comprehensive onboarding, and extensive on-the-job training, a difficult employee can still cause problems within your team.

When that happens, follow the step-by-step plan in the next section to mitigate the damage.

Dealing With Difficult Employees Step-By-Step

Business professionals discussing difficult employees

1) Look For The Cause Of Their Behavior

Difficult employees aren’t difficult by nature. If they were, you wouldn’t hire them. All too often, an employee acts out because of something going on in their life.

It could be that the employee is:

  • Unhappy in their job
  • Frustrated with coworkers
  • Dealing with personal issues

When you identify the cause of their behavior, you can take steps to help the employee and remedy the underlying issue as much as possible.

2) Give Clear And Direct Feedback

When dealing with difficult employees, always sit down with them and give clear and direct feedback about their behavior.

Problem employees may not even be aware that their actions are having a broader impact on the team as a whole. It’s up to you as their manager to bring the matter to their attention and provide guidance on how they can improve.

You might do this during a scheduled mid-year review, or just call them into your office one day for an impromptu chat.

Whichever you choose, keep your language and your message positive so as not to completely offend and alienate the team member.

3) Clarify The Consequences

If feedback and guidance aren’t enough, sit down with the employee and explain the consequences they may face if they continue to behave as they are.

Most people will respond to potential losses — their bonus, a promotion, the privilege of working from home — more than they will potential gains, so be sure to clarify what’s at stake if their difficult behavior persists.

4) Be Consistent & Follow Through

Consistency is key when dealing with difficult employees. The way you manage the issue should be the same over time (for the original offender) and for all employees thereafter.

Resist the urge to change your strategy while you’re dealing with a difficult employee, and don’t set different standards for different team members.

One of the best ways to forge consistency in your workforce management — whether it’s dealing with difficult employees or not — is to include disciplinary and conflict-resolution information in your employee handbook.

After you’ve established how your business will handle problem employees, be sure to follow through on those guidelines and in whatever consequences you established in the previous step.

If you don’t follow through, the employee may feel that they can continue their harmful behavior without repercussions.

5) Discipline When Necessary

Business owner meeting with a difficult employee

Managers dealing with problem employees are often reluctant to exact discipline. That’s a mistake.

At this point in the process, you’ve tried to identify the underlying cause of the behavior, you’ve given direct feedback, and you’ve established consequences. If the employee doesn’t improve after all of that, discipline is the next necessary step.

Start with small forms of discipline — dock their pay for one day or put them on a different project — and move up to harsher consequences if they don’t change their ways.

Enacting discipline after several warnings shows that you’re willing to follow through, that you take this issue seriously, and that the employee must reform or suffer the consequences.

6) Separate The Employee From The Team

One form of discipline that has proven effective is separating a difficult employee from the rest of the team. Depending on your business, this may involve:

  • Rearranging desks
  • Reassigning projects
  • Transferring employees to other departments
  • Offering remote work
  • Scheduling fewer team meetings

If separating the problem employee from the team seems harsh, think of it as protecting the remaining members from a difficult situation rather than punishing the offender.

It’s the same logic that hospitals use to prevent the spread of disease — isolate the sick individual to protect the healthy.

Remember, a difficult employee can quickly turn toxic, spread discord through formerly happy team members, and cause a complete breakdown of your workflow.

7) Terminate As A Last Resort

Despite your best efforts, some problem employees may refuse to change. In those cases, termination may be your only option.

If you choose to let the employee go, it should always be as a last resort after trying other ways to improve their behavior. Jumping from a single complaint to firing the offender the next day might give them grounds for legal action.

There are better strategies to mitigate the impact of a difficult employee on your business. Do everything you can to find ways to help the individual work better with your team and your business.

8) Document Everything

Throughout the process of dealing with a difficult employee — from the first complaint to the exit interview — it’s imperative that you document everything.

If the individual changes their ways, you can use the information to create an employee development plan that will prevent them from falling back into old habits.

If the individual doesn’t change and you’re forced to terminate their employment, you have records showing that you tried your best to remedy the situation and didn’t simply fire them for no reason.

Don’t Let Difficult Employees Infect Your Team

Team workers having a meeting

The behavior of a difficult employee can easily infect the rest of your team. So when you recognize a problem employee in your midst, don’t wait to address the issue.

Use the step-by-step plan outlined above to get the employee in question — and indeed your whole team — back on track.

Some of the strategies we’ve suggested above can take time out of your busy schedule and have a significant impact on the responsibilities and schedules of your team members.

To avoid potential issues, you’ll need to streamline your scheduling and workforce optimization. The Sling app can help.

Sling’s onboard artificial intelligence informs you of conflicts such as double-bookings, missed time-off requests, and other issues that can cause delays in your efforts to maintain good employee morale.

Repairing the damage done by a difficult employee will take time, but the results — productivity, group cohesion, positive attitude — are well worth the effort.

For more free resources to help you manage your business better, organize and schedule your team, and track and calculate labor costs, visit GetSling.com today.

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