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Business Guides    /    How to Manage

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This is the part of the job that many Managers dislike the most – having to deal with difficult staff. Whilst it’s tempting to try to ignore issues in the hope that they will sort themselves out, this usually only makes matters worse.

Left alone, difficult individuals can have a negative impact of other staff which may lead to good employees leaving as well as potentially impacting on productivity. Therefore, knowing how to deal with this type of situation is essential.

Difficult employees come in a range of types and recognising these behaviours is important when deciding the best way to address the issue.

Some of the most common types of difficult staff that Managers have to deal with are:

The procrastinator

The procrastinator will often miss deadlines, whilst producing a number of excuses for the delay. They usually lack motivation, which if left unchecked can impact on the morale of the rest of team. Setting clear timescales and regularly monitoring their progress will help to keep the procrastinator in line.

The solo artist

The employee who thinks that they don’t need to be part of the team and prefers to work independently, can have a strong negative impact on productivity. Staff who refused to co-operate with others need to be managed appropriately.

The complainer

The employee who constantly moans about things, either real or imagined, will create a negative culture around them. Others will grow tired of their complaints and managers need to act proactively to restore a more positive environment. By creating a listening culture, staff with genuine concerns will know that they will be heard, and appropriate action will be taken.

The bully

The impact of one dominating personality within a team can cause serious damage to morale and, if left unchecked, can lead to high staff turnover. Managers need to take swift action to nip issues of bullying in the bud before they take hold, as the damage to an employer’s reputation will ultimately affect the bottom line.

The ‘know it all’

The employee who won’t take instructions or accept other’s points of view can be a highly divisive team member. Their refusal to accept that they are wrong means that it can be very difficult to improve their performance and they can have a very toxic effect which requires firm management.

The following guide sets out the key steps to dealing effectively with a difficult staff member, whatever type they are:

Key steps to managing difficult staff

1. Observe for yourself

Before you can deal with the matter you need to be clear on your facts.  If possible observe the difficult employee in a variety of situations in order to see first-hand how they behave. That way you will have the evidence of your own eyes rather than relying on second hand information.

2. Prepare before you meet with them

Make sure you have planned out how to start the discussion with the member of staff. Sometimes opening the conversation can be the trickiest part, so prepare.  Making a few notes on how you will start the discussion can help.  It can also be useful to jot down a few key bullet points to ensure you cover all the areas that you need to.

3. Listen carefully

When you meet with the employee listen carefully to their explanation of events.  It’s easy to start off with a preconceived idea of what the problem is, but there may well be a reasonable explanation, particularly if the behaviour is out of character for that individual.

4. Check your understanding

Replay what they have said back to them to check you have heard and understood what they are saying. Use phrases such as “so to clarify, what you are telling me is ……..”

5. Be very clear

It’s really important that you are clear to the member of staff what it is about their behaviour that is unacceptable or inappropriate.  It may seem obvious to you, but they may not actually see it themselves or realise the impact their behaviour is having. For example, being 5 minutes late each day may not seem important to them, but they need to understand the impact on the rest of the team.  Over time this type of poor timekeeping impacts on productivity and can lead to resentment from colleagues if it goes unchecked.

6. Agree an action plan

Set out clearly what actions / changes you require from the individual.  You may be able to provide helpful suggestions on how this can be achieved but make it clear that you expect to see improvements. The right course of action will depend on the circumstances. 

For example, coaching may be appropriate if you need to work with them to recognise how their actions are impacting on their performance. 

Counselling can be used if there appears to be an underlying issue that is causing their behaviour. 

If the problem is down to lack of understanding, then training might be required.

7. Set out the consequences

Be clear on what will happen if their behaviour doesn’t improve.  This may range from more formal action such as disciplinary through to dismissal.  Staff need to understand that you are serious about the need for change and that there will be consequences if they don’t.

8. Keep a clear record

Make sure you keep a record of your meeting and any agreed actions. This is really important as you may need to refer to your notes as evidence of the discussion in the future.

Of course, sometimes the employee either continues to display unacceptable behaviour or the matter is too serious for this type of informal approach.  In this case a formal disciplinary process needs to be followed.  Guidance on how to do this is in the next section of the guide. 

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