Difficult people are everywhere. They’re part of our families, live within our communities and commute on the same roads as us. Difficult people in the workplace, however, present unique challenges for human resources (HR) professionals. Company policies, confrontation avoidance and the threat of lawsuits make it difficult for business leaders to effectively address the issue of a problem employee. 

Six Tips to Successfully (and Compliantly) Manage Difficult Employees

Difficult people are everywhere. They’re part of our families, live within our communities and commute on the same roads as us. Difficult people in the workplace, however, present unique challenges for human resources (HR) professionals. Company policies, confrontation avoidance and the threat of lawsuits make it difficult for business leaders to effectively address the issue of a problem employee.

“Difficult employees are a huge drain on the organization in terms of lost time, productivity and morale,” said Hal Morgan, director of participant content and communications for Ceridian LifeWorks. “The actions and attitudes of these individuals have a ripple effect, impacting those working closely with them and the entire company. Research shows that employees who work with difficult co-workers suffer from declining commitment to work, decreased job satisfaction and greater levels of stress.”

By using standard processes and thoughtful approaches, however, companies and managers can often coach difficult employees and transform them into productive team members – while mitigating legal risk.

Six tips for effectively managing difficult employees

Within a Ceridian LifeWorks podcast, Victor Lipman, writer for Forbes.com and former marketing executive, discusses the investment of time and resources managers put into difficult employees. He explains that as a manager he spent 80 percent of his time managing 20 percent of his employees. By helping managers learn how to recognize and effectively manage difficult employees, HR can save the company time and money.

"It seemed as a manager that 80% of my time was spent managing 20% of my employees."
Victor Lipman, writer for Forbes.com and former marketing executive
Below are six tips to successfully manage problem employees:
  1. Don’t ignore the problem. While it’s never easy to confront employees with performance issues, it is imperative that the behaviors are addressed immediately and that the employee understands the supervisor’s expectations of them.
  2. Develop trust and understanding. It is important for a manager to shape his or her approach to the situation around the employee’s personality, pain points and motivators.
  3. Establish clear objectives. Discuss with the employee how their actions need to change and establish very clear objectives. Use a performance improvement plan to create a roadmap for improvement and to outline the consequences if objectives are not met.
  4. Give plenty of feedback. As the employee works on his or her behavior, managers should provide ongoing and constructive feedback. This includes both positive and negative feedback throughout the disciplinary period, not just at evaluation time.
  5. Make the HR/manager connection. Managers should be comfortable tapping into the skills, expertise and resources of the HR team. HR professionals should make themselves available to provide managers ideas, feedback and coaching on how to supervise a difficult employee.
  6. Document, document, document. Coach managers to thoroughly document the employee’s performance issues, setbacks and successes. Thorough documentation provides some protection from lawsuits and is vital if discipline needs to be escalated to the next level.

Knowing when to say when

Sometimes, despite a manager’s best efforts, difficult employees may not change their behavior or alter their actions enough to meet expectations. In these circumstances, supervisors should consider terminating the employee. The process of letting an employee go is an emotional one filled with potential legal pitfalls. Consequently, it is imperative that HR works with managers to carefully plan and implement this process.

Treating the employee with dignity, respect and empathy are keys to keeping the “human” in human resources during this process. Steps for protecting the company from litigation include:

  • Work with the manager to ensure that the employee knows, before the termination, that they are not meeting expectations.
  • Keep the termination confidential. The employee should not learn about the action from co-workers or by reading it in an email.
  • Inform the employee of the termination in private.

“When working with employee performance issues, it is important to be open and honest about the situation and your expectations,” said Jen Piliero, senior product manager at Ceridian LifeWorks. “Upfront and transparent communication helps to ensure that the process remains professional and less likely to have broader ramifications.”

For more information:

  • Read more tips for managing difficult employees
  • Learn about Ceridian LifeWorks EAP solutions
  • Stay connected with Ceridian LifeWorks Mobile