How to Deal With Difficult Employees

Mike Kelly

As much as you might want to gripe about your difficult employees holding your business back, their performance is largely based on your management. Learn how to deal with difficult employees because it’s your responsibility to do everything possible to increase an employee’s performance before letting them go. In fact, your employees are hoping you’ll act. A recent study found that 59% of employees would be happy if their boss handled problematic coworkers.

Employees are one of the most valuable assets for a business. For good or bad, employee performance largely dictates your company’s performance. Teams with engaged employees typically see 21% more productivity and 20% less internal theft. Sadly, 32% of U.S. workers say they are unengaged at work; 72% said that their performance would improve if they received the correct feedback.

Learn how to deal with five types of employees that can mean trouble for your business: those who undermine, have a bad attitude, are lazy, are disgruntled, or are toxic to your work environment.

How to Deal With Difficult Employees Who Undermine Your Authority 

You will want to deal with a difficult employee who undermines your authority with the understanding that they may have insights that could be valuable to your team’s performance. Not all employees who undermine you are bad. Here’s how to determine why an employee is undermining you and how to prevent it.

Get to the Bottom of It 

To learn how to deal with a difficult employee who is undermining you, it’s important to understand why an employee is undermining your authority. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the employee make a good point when he undermines me?
  • Does the employee have insights into the procedures that I’m managing that I don’t have?
  • Am I fully aware of all the projects and work that this employee is doing?

If an employee is often correct when they undermine you, then there are simple ways to resolve the issue. (We’ll cover these in the next section.)

If, however, you suspect that an employee is undermining you for malicious reasons, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the employee often undermine me in front of customers or vendors?
  • Does the employee undermine me behind my back?
  • Does the employee undermine me by doing tasks differently than how we agreed without voicing an issue?

Get Your Difficult Employee’s Feedback Before Going Public 

If your difficult employee is often correct when they undermine you, this may be an issue of simply getting their feedback before you publicly discuss your plans. To learn how to deal with a difficult employee who is undermining you, sit down with the employee and discuss the changes you’re planning on making that would impact their job. Tell the employee that you’re interested in their feedback and you’d like to know if they have any insights on the strategy. Make sure to explain that you’re planning on discussing these changes with a larger audience and you’d like any feedback the employee may have before you do so.

This can give the employee the opportunity to think about the changes you’re discussing and provide feedback. This will help prevent public displays of insubordination when you publicly discuss the changes with other employees.

This doesn’t mean that you must act on every piece of feedback that comes from this employee. However, by acknowledging and explaining why you will or won’t act on their feedback, you should be able to smooth over any frustrations they have.

If they continue to undermine you, then it’s time to speak to them directly about the issue.

Speak to Your Difficult Employee Privately

If the problem persists even after you’ve given the employee the opportunity to provide early feedback, it’s time to have a direct discussion.

Schedule time to sit down in private with the employee (you probably should be doing this routinely anyway.) Explain to the employee that you have provided them a forum to give feedback, but they have not used it. Explain to them that, when they disagree with you and go against your instructions, they crush productivity.

At this point, you’ll need to begin a discussion about why the employee hasn’t been providing feedback when you ask for it. It may be a simple misunderstanding on their part. Or they may feel uncomfortable giving you the feedback in a one-on-one situation. If the employee provides good reasons as to why they have not provided feedback, it’s important that you work with them toward a solution.

If the employee can’t give a reason, or they have a negative attitude about having a discussion, it may be time to start looking for a replacement.

Undermining Employee Conduct

When learning how to deal with difficult employees, it’s important to note that an employee’s conduct should always be professional. Employees can disagree with bosses and business owners in a respectful way. But if it ever crosses the line where they have an unprofessional attitude and are deliberately insulting, it’s imperative that you have a one-on-one discussion with them to address their behavior immediately.

problem employees

Learn How to Deal With Difficult Employees With Bad Attitudes

When figuring out how to deal with a difficult employee who has a bad attitude, you must first define the behaviors you want employees to embrace your business. You should do this with specific examples of how they should interact with customers, clients, vendors, and other employees. Once you’ve defined these behaviors, you should embody them yourself and lead by example. If the employee’s bad attitude persists, then you need to spend time coaching them on their behavior before making the decision to let them go.

Reject the Difficult Employee’s Behavior

Everybody has their bad days. It’s okay to cut employees some slack if they’re going through a difficult time. But you should never acquiesce to an employee’s consistently negative attitude. For example, don’t allow a vocally negative employee to shirk responsibilities that other employees must fulfill simply because listening to the negative employee complain isn’t worth the trouble of getting them to do a task.

This will set a negative precedent for the rest of your employees. It shows that a bad attitude can be rewarded. And that a good attitude is punished by having to pick up the slack of the negative employee. It’s tempting to let a negative employee get their way, so you don’t have to deal with them. But you will lose productivity, morale, and good employees in the long run.

Lead by Example and Define Company Culture

As the owner of your business, you should be the embodiment of your company culture. You also should define your company culture. When defining the company culture, it should reflect the best aspects of your company and one or two that you’d like to incorporate.

If you run a law firm and you say that your company culture is a carefree laid-back environment for employees to collaborate, then you probably either run a terrible law firm or you’re not being honest. Instead, focus on the good aspects. You might say your law firm is a hard-working environment where young professionals can grow under the guidance of experienced lawyers, all while providing the utmost professional service for clients.

But don’t stop there. Think of culture as certain behaviors or actions, and then define them in your employee handbook. Examples for your business might look like this:

  • We always respect our fellow employees’ opinions. This means we don’t speak over them or show signs of disrespect or frustration when speaking to them.
  • We give our undivided attention to customers and clients. This means we do not use our cell phones while interacting with customers and clients. We always make sure that they’re being attended to when they are in our office.

Discuss Actions With a Difficult Employee

If you followed the previous steps of rejecting the difficult employee’s constant bad attitude, leading by example, and documenting the behaviors that exemplify the company culture, you’re in a good position to discuss the employee’s attitude. Consider doing the previous steps if you haven’t already. It can be an awkward conversation if you call the employee out on bad behavior and they have a list of bad examples that you have set.

When navigating how to deal with a difficult employee, what’s most important is that you do not discuss the employee’s attitude or behavior. Instead, discuss their actions. Calling them out on their attitude or behavior can make things feel personal. Instead, discuss their actions and give specific examples.

Use the behaviors described in your employee handbook to explain what you would like to have done by the employee in these situations. This provides actionable steps the employee can take, and it doesn’t come across as being personally critical.

In most cases, this should remedy the employee’s behavior. Most people don’t know when their behaviors are inappropriate. If the employee can’t adapt to these changes, then it’s time to consider letting them go.

How to Deal With Difficult Employees Who are Lazy

There are many ways to deal with lazy employees. This includes changing their job description, giving them more responsibilities and challenges, providing training, creating an incentive rewards program, gaining an understanding of the problem, or just straight-up firing them. It’s also important that you define what you’re expecting from the employee in their role. This should include duties performed, quality of work, and quantity of production. Let’s take a closer look at these steps so you can determine the best way to proceed on how to deal with difficult employees who are lazy.

Gaining an Understanding of the Problem

You first need to define whether an employee can’t do a task or won’t do a task. Ask yourself, “If the employee’s job was on the line for this one task, do I think that he or she could do it?” If the answer is no, then you’re looking at a skill issue. The solution is to find a training program that can help the employee develop the skills needed to do the job. If the answer is yes, then you have a motivation issue.

The first thing you need to do is define what you’re expecting of the employee and the capacity to which you’re expecting it. For example, if you expect the employee to file reports, then you also need to define how many you expect for the employee to do every day. Before you sit down with the employee and discuss their lack of motivation or productivity, you should sit down to discuss the job specifications. Treat this as a casual meeting with the employee and go over what you’re expecting from them. This should include both the capacity and the quality of their work.

If the employee still underperforms after you’ve defined the role, or if they say that they can’t or won’t perform the duties as outlined, it’s time to have a more direct discussion. Here are four questions that you need to get answered in order to determine how to motivate and how to deal with the difficult employee:

Is there something going on in their personal life?

You don’t need to know every detail of your employee’s personal life. But you should know if there’s something happening outside of work that is impacting your employee’s performance. Give your employees a pass if they have been underperforming due to personal issues. Ask the employee if they are working toward solving the issue. If this is a long-term personal problem that is outside the employee’s control, consider reducing the responsibilities or shifting them into a role they could perform better. So long as this isn’t something that happens frequently, in most cases, the issue will get resolved and the employee will return to full productivity.

Does the employee feel that they’re not being challenged enough?

It is possible that the employee is bored. In this instance, ask if the employee has any ideas on projects or new ventures that may help your company. Giving the employee a sense of ownership in their responsibilities can go a long way in terms of motivation.

Does the employee feel that there’s no way to develop their career?

Some employees need a light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how much they like their current job, they need something to chase after. You may find that it’s difficult to keep employees at your company if there’s no room for growth.

Is there not enough incentive to perform?

You probably expect that a paycheck is enough of an incentive to make your employees do their jobs. But sometimes the potential amount of work for a job exceeds a normal paycheck. For example, an employee has a quota for how many customers they need to support via phone every day. The ideal number is 20 customers, but there is room for the employee to support up to 60 customers a day. If the employee is going to get paid the same amount of money for contacting 20 customers as they would for 60, there’s really no motivation to exceed basic expectations.

There are two main types of incentive programs you can create—competitive and scaling:

  • A competitive incentive program only rewards top employees. So, for example, whichever employee supports the most customers in a month will receive a bonus. This may sound like a good idea, but the downside is that once employees realize they won’t be the top performer of the month, they may lose motivation.
  • Scaling incentive programs reward employees based on degrees that you have set for performance. For example, an employee may get a small bonus for supporting 30 customers a day, a slightly larger bonus for 40 customers a day, and so on.

Letting Go of Lazy Employees

If you’ve made attempts to understand what may be happening in the lazy employee’s personal life and you try to create options for incentives, training, challenges, or advancement with no success, then it may be time to let the employee go. If your company has an HR department, keep them in the loop as you’re making these efforts to work with the employee and let them know when you think it’s time to let the employee go.

how to deal with difficult employees

How to Deal With a Disgruntled Employee

The first step in learning how to deal with a disgruntled employee is knowing how to spot one. There are several key differences between disgruntled employees and those who are lazy or underperforming. Once you spot a disgruntled employee, the next step is to determine what is causing the employee’s aggravation. When you’re figuring out how to deal with a disgruntled employee, determine if it is worth fixing the problem or letting the employee go. It’s always important to know that there is no room for unprofessional behavior. Disgruntled employees who make threats, undermine other employees or intentionally sabotage the company’s goals should be dealt with accordingly, regardless of the reason for their unhappiness.

What Defines a Disgruntled Employee?

A disgruntled employee is one who constantly discusses their unhappiness about their job to other coworkers and even customers. Employees may be lazy, unhappy, or underperforming, but that doesn’t necessarily make them disgruntled. It is the actual act of constantly expressing displeasure with one’s job that defines a disgruntled employee.

The Dangers of a Disgruntled Employee

A disgruntled employee does more than just underperform. They can spread their negativity to other employees and lead them to underperform as well. This creates a toxic work environment, with many unhappy employees. This will then drag productivity down and further create more unhappy employees. The following is a list of ways a disgruntled employee can damage your company:

  • They refuse to collaborate and help. Disgruntled employees are less likely to help others. This can create a vacuum effect where other teammates refuse to collaborate.
  • They complain to customers and clients. Disgruntled employees love to let people know how unhappy they are with their job. It’s bad enough that they say this to their coworkers. But they might even go so far as to express their unhappiness to customers and clients.
  • They take from the company. Disgruntled employees feel that they are owed more than what they are given. For this reason, they may be inclined to take from the company. This can range from not showing up to work, taking extra-long lunch breaks, showing up late and leaving early, or even stealing.
  • They encourage others to be unhappy. Disgruntled employees will often point out the reasons for other employees to be unhappy. In doing this, they can possibly spread their disgruntled attitude and turn more employees against your company.
  • They waste time complaining. Disgruntled employees will take any opportunity they can to express their unhappiness with their job. It’s common for them to commandeer meetings with their negative talk. They are also apt to bother other coworkers with their nonstop negative banter.

Learning How to Deal With a Disgruntled Employee

A disgruntled employee can very quickly have a negative impact on your business. You need to act fast. Your first step is to find out why the employee is disgruntled. This is finding out why an employee may be unmotivated, unhappy, or underperforming at work.

In most cases, you should be able to remedy the cause that is making the employee unhappy. If you can’t fix the problem, or the problem doesn’t seem significant enough to warrant the employee’s behavior, then it may be time to issue a warning. Consult your HR department, or find out what your state laws are for terminating an employee. If the negative attitude continues, then you’ll want to remove the employee from the environment as quickly as possible.

If a disgruntled employee lashes out, steals from the company, or intentionally sabotages a company goal, you need to act immediately and remove the employee. It’s one thing for an employee to be noticeably unhappy, but it’s another for them to actively try to sabotage the company.

How to Deal With Toxic Employees

The only way to deal with toxic employees is by letting them go. The real challenge with toxic employees is being able to spot them. A toxic employee is someone who intentionally sabotages other people’s work, steals ideas, undermines managers, steals from the company, and lies. This type of employee is only concerned about getting themselves ahead. They’ll be more than willing to sacrifice other people’s careers, projects, and company goals in order to make themselves look better.

How to Spot and How to Deal with Toxic Employees

It’s easy to spot a toxic employee  if you catch them in the act. But some toxic employees have made a career out of lying, manipulating, and stealing. Here are three things to look for to help you determine if you might have a toxic employee on your hands:

  • They’re at the center of drama. Every now and then an employee may find himself at the center of some drama, and that’s okay. But when an employee is constantly in the middle of it, then it’s time to be suspicious. You may hear this employee say that it’s not their fault, or that people are out to get them. If situation after situation involves the same employee, then it’s time to start looking closer at whether they are toxic.
  • They gossip and share secrets. Coworkers are going to gossip. Talking about another employee who irritates you or a situation that annoys you isn’t a problem so long as it’s kept to a minimum. It’s when an employee repeats what another employee has confided in them for the sake of fueling an argument that this becomes a problem. For example, Karen says to Tom that Susan is taking too long on a project. That’s fine. But if Tom then goes to Susan and repeats what Karen says and creates a rift between the two, you might have a toxic employee on your hands.
  • They have chameleon personalities. Watch out for employees whose personalities completely change based on who they’re with. It’s normal to adjust your personality a little bit to match someone else’s, but total shifts are red flags. This is especially an issue if an employee is very buddy-buddy with someone that they have stated they don’t like. There’s nothing overtly wrong with this type of personality, but it’s just something you should keep an eye on as a business owner.

Once you’ve spotted potentially toxic employees you need to keep a close eye on them. These employees may be the unseen reason for lots of problems in your business. Toxic employees are more than just unhappy or disgruntled workers. These are employees who are willing to harm other employees and company goals in order to make themselves look better or to gain a better position in the company. Once you can confirm that they are toxic, it’s time to let them go as quickly as possible.


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