How to deal with difficult staff

One ‘bad apple’ at a company can have a massive impact. Their actions can greatly affect staff morale, lower productivity and ruin the customer service experience. So, just how do you deal with difficult staff?

Time of change

January is traditionally a busy month in the job market. For many, the Christmas break provides the time to reflect on the past year and set new goals and targets for the months ahead. According to the Office for National Statistics, of those employed in January – March 2020, 6.1% changed occupation in the first half of the year. That isn’t just a change of employer, that’s a whole new career path.

In America, Forbes reported on findings by Fierce Inc. that 4 out of 5 employees currently work or have worked with a potentially toxic co-worker. While a study by Randstad to ascertain why employees left their workplace found that 58% left or are considering leaving due to negativity, office politics and disrespectful behaviour.

As an employer you need to retain your best staff and, when absolutely necessary, say farewell to problem staff (while being mindful of wrongful and unfair dismissal).

Signs of a difficult employee

It’s obviously relatively easy to spot (or hear) the employee who is openly criticising management, constantly making negative comments and failing to take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes however, their negative behaviour can be more subtle. Rest assured, if you are regularly communicating with your team in an open and honest manner, other staff members will be only too well aware of the problem staff and most likely happy to point them out.

During my many years in HR, the task of helping to deal with problematic staff is one of the most common issues I have faced. I have seen relationships breakdown to such a degree that a senior manager could no longer bear to be in the same room as a problematic member of his team. No sensible employer wishes matters to get to that stage. The guidance below should help.

6 Tips on how to deal with difficult staff

  1. Identify the root cause – In my experience, managers can be very quick to make an assessment that an employee is toxic or underperforming and “needs to go” before actually establishing why an individual is behaving in that way. In many cases the employee is going through a tough time in their life which the manager is unaware about, sometimes it’s even work related.  Consider whether the employee’s behaviour is normal and if not try to find out if there is a hidden reason.  I always encourage my clients to speak to the employee in a supportive way first and give them the opportunity to disclose any underlying problems before approaching the situation in a heavy handed way
  2. Be open to feedback – Have you ever considered that their behaviour may be because of you? Have you ever asked them specifically for feedback on how you manage? You may need to probe and ask different questions to obtain real, value adding feedback and don’t forget to use active listening
  3. Hold regular 121s – When was the last time you had a 121 with your employee? 121s not only give the employee the opportunity to raise any concerns but it’s also a great time to highlight any concerns and be clear about your expectations going forward
  4. Communicate your concerns – During your 121 and after you’ve identified that there are no extenuating circumstances, be clear about the areas of concern, giving key examples. Just saying “your behaviour is poor” is not good enough, you need to be more specific.  It’s powerful to explain the impact their misconduct, underperformance or behaviour has on others.  Don’t be afraid to say “your behaviour has a negative impact on the morale of the team” or “as a result of your lateness, meetings haven’t been able to start on time so we have been unable to cover everything”.  Once you have outlined your concerns, examples and the impact then give clear expectations on what you expect from the individual going forward, try and include them and get their agreement.
  5. Monitor progress – Once you have had the difficult conversation, it’s important that you monitor the employee. Review their work, get feedback from other managers and hold regular 121s
  6. Document your discussions – It is important that you document the discussions you are having with the employee. Not only is this useful for both of you to continually review but in the event that you need to take formal action, you will be able to demonstrate and evidence that you have tried to tackle the issue informally

Help with problem staff

If the problem continues, I would then recommend that you start to take formal action. All situations are different when it comes to problematic staff but whatever issue you are facing, it can be resolved.  Don’t forget to take advantage of our free, no obligation half an hour consultation which will give you the opportunity to talk through the issue and I can offer some quick advice and support.

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