How to Manage Difficult Employees In Your Workplace

Young businesswoman holding papers talking with a businessman with anger, Boss found a mistake in documentation. Adobe

One of the biggest challenges a manager can face is dealing with difficult staff. If an employee is unpleasant towards their co-workers, and their attitude and behaviour are off-putting to the people around them, then action needs to be taken.  

A manager might be tempted to ignore this type of situation and hope that things improve on their own; however, inaction is a recipe for disaster. Left unaddressed, a problematic employee can cause significant damage to productivity and morale, and can even drive other valuable employees away from the department (or, worse still, the entire business). 

Yes, difficult employees may be very good at their jobs and reliable contributors to the bottom line. If their behaviour starts to take a toll on their co-workers, though, then management will need to intervene. If a difficult employee is not managed correctly, it may create a toxic working environment which will lead employees to underperform. They will spread their behaviour towards others, and the entire team will suffer as a result.

Therefore, we have compiled an actionable guide on how to manage difficult employees.

Managing Difficult Employees 

It is essential to understand how to handle difficult people in a way that will not detrimentally impact the rest of the team. Here are some key steps you can take in such instances:

1. Be Responsive

Be responsive to the issues and complaints being made by the offending employee’s colleagues. Work on improving the situation by addressing it directly with the individual as soon as possible after an incident arises, speaking specifically about the event. 

Set a positive tone at the beginning of the conversation so that the employee can see that there is value to their work, which should help motivate them to improve. Mention the areas in which the employee is skilled and why you value them (if you can’t find a positive, then you need to consider why they are working for you in the first place). 

Also, be sure to understand the conversation from their point of view. If the employee has a legitimate issue that hasn’t been addressed, then look for ways to resolve the issue. By offering a solution to the problem, the individual may start behaving differently once he or she has been heard. 

2. Focus on Performance 

All too often, difficult employees are unaware of the destructive effect they have on others. For this reason, it’s crucial to mention which areas you have received complaints in, all the while remaining sensitive to the situation and emphasising that the individual remains a valued member of the team. 

Don’t attack them on a personal level; instead, focus on which areas of their performance they should be doing differently. Explain the behaviour and its effects in an objective way, using specific, concrete examples. 

Acknowledge that while there is a problem, there is also a solution. While your employee probably doesn’t want to hear what is being said, your message should be delivered in a clear, direct and polite way. They should understand why (and where) there is a need for change, which should lead to a positive response. 

3. Document Complaints

If you’re having issues with an employee, you must always document their offences in detail, with specific examples of the behaviour in question. 

All too often, managers fail to document complaints due to the hope that the situation will fix itself. Remember, documentation isn’t harmful; it is prudent. If you don’t keep a record of the behaviour in question, then you will have issues letting the individual go if the need arises, due to a lack of supporting evidence. 

Be sure to include all relevant material in this documentation, including formal complaints, performance evaluations and peer reviews. 

4. Adopt a Progressive Discipline Policy

By this point, if things haven’t improved, then you’ll need to set consequences for the staff member in question. Explain which specific behaviour you want to see a change in, by which date, and what will happen if you do not see a satisfactory difference by that date. 

Also, outline what the individual stands to lose if they do not improve. For most people, losing out on a privilege – such as a potential promotion – is a good enough reason to adjust their behaviour. 

If the problem persists, then it’s time to issue a verbal warning. Make sure the individual understands the effect of the warning, and clearly spell out the consequences. Be sure to document and file each conversation, and include a copy of your notes in the employee’s personnel file. 

If you have done all of the above, but the problem still persists, then you will need to issue a written warning. At this stage, you’ll need to begin working closely with your HR department (if you have one) to ensure you are carrying out each step correctly and not in contradiction of employment laws or practices. 

Following this, it is recommended to initiate a performance improvement plan (PIP). To do this, you will need to: 

  • Establish specific goals and timeframes
  • Outline consequences
  • Meet regularly with the employee to review and assess

Maintain utmost confidentiality throughout this entire process, and never encourage office gossip as this will worsen the situation. No matter how difficult, negative or lazy the individual may be, talking badly about them to other employees is wholly unprofessional and can even adversely affect the disciplinary process. Focus instead on cultivating an atmosphere of trust and demonstrating that you are strong and professional. Be fair and diplomatic in all of your actions and interactions, ensuring that you do your utmost to support the individual to change. 

5. Terminate the Employment

Dismissing an employee is one of the hardest things a manager can do, and should always be used as a last resort. However, if all other avenues have been exhausted and you have decided to terminate the person’s employment, then it’s essential that you complete the process properly.


If you’ve taken the correct approach every step of the way, then no matter how things work out, you will know you did your best under the circumstances. 

Managing a difficult employee can be time-consuming and stressful. Try to avoid spending all of your time and energy on the one individual; instead, remain healthy and proactive, and surround yourself with positive, supportive people. 

Finally, be cautious of your hiring strategy in the future and establish ground rules to help you identify potentially toxic people. To do this, you will need to implement hiring best practices and carefully interview candidates based on their personality and cultural fit.

Was this article helpful? How else would you recommend dealing with a difficult employee? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!