How to Deal With Difficult Employees as a New Manager

Dr. Ryan Giffen

Difficult employees: no one wants to work with them, yet every workplace has them. If left to their own devices, difficult employees can sap morale, distract focus, and create a huge drain on team productivity. They can even create a hostile work environment, which isn’t good for anyone. As a new manager, it will be up to you to take your leadership role seriously and learn how to deal with difficult employees promptly and decisively. 

Being a manager may mean having a direct conversation with the employee where you discuss your concerns. You may work together to formulate a plan that allows the employee to address the concerns and correct poor behavior or performance. Then comes the hardest part: tracking the problem employee’s progress and making a timely decision about whether to retain the employee or let him go. 

As a new manager, you must act in the best interest of the company and the rest of the team. In learning how to deal with difficult employees, your primary objective should be to create a happy and supportive workplace that fosters creativity and productivity. In some cases, dismissing a difficult employee is a necessary step towards bringing the workplace back in balance, but certainly not in every situation. The following are some tips for managing challenging employees in the workplace.  

10 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Employees

1. Critique the employee’s behavior, not the employee. 

When it comes to confronting a difficult employee about his workplace behavior or performance, what you say and how you say it can have a significant impact on the outcome of your conversation. One of the easiest ways to make sure the discussion does not become overly personal or emotional is to focus specifically on the employee’s behavior. This approach prevents your feedback from seeming like a personal attack on the employee. Make sure the employee knows that you are hoping to find a solution to the problem that you can both agree on and you will be setting the stage for a productive interaction.

2. Document the problematic behavior.

Keeping an accurate record of behavior and performance is key when managing employees. Any time you witness an employee’s inappropriate behavior or poor performance, make a note. That way, if you do have to sit down with the employee at some point, you can refer to specific instances rather than making vague statements about the employee’s problematic behavior. If the employee is dismissed and decides to sue for wrongful termination, having a detailed account of the employee’s behavior on record can also protect the company from liability. 

3. Be clear and direct in explaining why the employee’s behavior is inappropriate.

Critiquing an employee’s behavior can be stressful for new managers. No one enjoys confrontation, especially when it involves a co-worker. It is far easier to let the employee’s behavior slide and hope it improves with time, but that passive approach doesn’t do you, the other employees, or the company any good. As a manager, you must be clear and direct in explaining to difficult employees why their behavior is inappropriate and how you expect it to change. Not only does this make your critique seem less like an unwarranted personal attack, but it also gives troublesome employees a clear picture of what they can do to improve their performance. 

4. Be consistent.

When it comes to setting a standard for what you expect in terms of workplace behavior and employee performance, consistency is key. You can’t sometimes be okay with employees showing up late to work or submitting incomplete reports and sometimes have a problem with it. Stick to company policy and be consistent in your feedback and you’ll find that your good employees will work to ensure their performance and behavior are up to your standards. 

5. Listen to and consider the employee’s feedback.

Making your position known is important when dealing with difficult employees, but making an effort to hear your employees out and consider their feedback is just as important. By allowing a challenging employee to state his case, you may be able to identify a workplace issue you weren’t aware of and take steps to address it. In some cases, simply feeling heard is incentive enough for a difficult employee to change his behavior.

6. Work with the employee to come up with a solution.

Any time you have to meet with an employee to discuss bad behavior or poor performance, the desired outcome should involve the two of you working together to come up with a practical solution to the problem. Once you have clearly laid out the behavioral issues for the employee and given him a chance to speak his mind, you and the employee can work towards resolving the issue in a way that you can both agree on. 

7. Set a specific timeline for improvement.

Just as important as clearly explaining how the employee’s behavior or performance must change is setting a specific timeline for improvement. Give the employee adequate time to correct the issue and monitor his progress during the agreed-upon time frame, being sure to check in periodically or intervene if the employee deviates from the plan. Once the timeline has expired, set up an evaluation with the employee to discuss his progress. 

8. Make the consequences of continued poor performance known.

Consequences do not mean threatening the employee with termination if the situation doesn’t change. However, you should make sure the employee is aware of the specific consequences he could face if his behavior does not improve during the agreed-upon time frame. Depending on the situation, these negative consequences could include a formal written warning, a mark on his record, a demotion, losing bonus eligibility, or, as a last resort, dismissal from employment. Difficult employees are unlikely to make a serious effort to change their behavior unless they know that continuing on the same path will have an ongoing negative impact on their employment. 

9. Don’t ever bad-mouth the employee to other workers.

Dealing with a difficult employee can be frustrating and stressful, but that doesn’t excuse bad-mouthing the employee to your co-workers. No matter how challenging you may find the situation to be or how tempting it may be to commiserate with other employees, a good manager never resorts to trash-talking. This type of unprofessional behavior can quickly set a tone of distrust, suspicion, or even hostility among the other employees, and that is simply not the way you want your workplace to operate. 

10. Recognize the fact that some people won’t change.

No manager wants to have to fire an employee, but realistically speaking, there will be times when dismissal is the best choice for the company. Not all people are capable of change, and keeping a disruptive or difficult employee on the payroll just to avoid firing him threatens the other workers’ performance and morale. If you have already worked through the company’s processes and attempted to find a solution using the interventions discussed above and the employee is still unwilling to make the necessary changes, you need to cut your losses and begin the termination process. 

About Dr. Ryan Giffen

With over 20 years of experience, Dr. Ryan Giffen is an expert in human relations and business culture. His career began in hospitality, leading operations and human resource departments for Fortune 500 companies and the like. Not long after, Ryan found his passion for teaching and consulting. He earned a Ph.D. in Hospitality Management with a Human Resources focus from Iowa State University and now works as an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. For over a decade, he continues to research and speak on organizational culture, relationship intelligence, and leadership effectiveness. Ryan is also the founder of Inospire, a company helping bosses and employees build stronger relationships with one another.  Lastly, Dr. Giffen is producer and host of the Corporate Shadow Podcast. a show helping everyday employees overcome workplace nonsense.