Managing difficult employees is an unwanted but all-too-common issue for employers and managers. But where there are problems, they must be dealt with quickly and in the correct way to reduce any toxic impact on team morale and performance and to avoid the matter becoming a legal complaint.
A difficult employee could be someone who fails to conduct themselves in a responsible or professional manner within the workplace. Or it could be someone whose behaviour negatively influences and affects other employees, creating a hostile working environment and draining attention and productivity.
For employers, it is important to recognise difficult behaviours and to understand what action they should take. Depending on the circumstances, this could include ways to positively influence and encourage behavioural change, and in some cases, escalating to disciplinary action.
Types of difficult employees
Understanding different kinds of difficult traits and behaviours helps employers to proactively identify potential issues and inform how best to manage the issue or the individual.
Although workplace gossip tends to start off innocuously, if it gets out of hand, it can lead to a significant decrease in a team’s productivity. This type of employee can become toxic, and when they are so preoccupied with flitting between others to gather and proclaim stories, their work suffers. In addition, unfounded rumour can turn into workplace politics and cause factional splits which will need to be dealt with. By ensuring your employees have sufficient time during sanctioned breaks and at after-work events, they should stay more focused during their working hours.
For persistent offenders, it may be advisable to speak with them directly. Any discussion should be documented in order to avoid any repercussions.
The ‘Yes’ Person
On the face of it, such a characteristic may not seem problematic. However, it could be an indicator of disengagement. Sources suggest these types of employees are most likely to put in the minimum effort and nothing more, waiting for detailed instructions, without taking any initiative. In some cases, this may result in a performance issue, if a disproportionate amount of time and effort is required to supervise or manage the individual and their output.
Or they may be struggling with their work/life balance, in which case a hybrid working arrangement such as flexible working or working from home could help improve engagement.
Procrastinating does not always have to be bad. Some creative employees use procrastination productively and if they can show you they can innovate whilst doing their job, think about letting them take their time. However, deadlines should be communicated and explained clearly to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding as to when work must be completed by. If an employee misses deadlines or submits low-quality work, this may be a capability or disciplinary issue (insubordination) depending on the circumstances.
Similar to the procrastinator in the way they attempt to avoid work, the excuse maker is more creative. They will probably make elaborate excuses for why they are late, or why they missed a deadline. Other common characteristics of the excuse maker include high absenteeism, low energy, and lack of motivation. You should remember these types of employees can impact team productivity, and if their behaviour is mimicked by others who perceive the conduct as being acceptable by management. So it is best to stop such behaviour early on.
These types of employees are usually high achievers and excellent performers. However, they rarely seem to recognise the value of a strong team, preferring to work independently. The problem here is that any business needs team co-operation to meet challenging targets, so anyone whose behaviour undermines this need to be addressed.
Your hardest worker could inadvertently become your most toxic employee. When this type of employee falls into workaholic behaviour and never takes time off, even when they are ill, they are prone to burn out and can easily make mistakes due to stress, or find themselves signed off work due to stress-related illness. Ensure your employees use their annual holiday and encourage de-stressing activities that take their minds off their work for a while.
These employees complain about everything, all the time, whether there is perceivebly a reason to or not. They do not seem to be satisfied with anything, which ultimately causes team negativity. Building a listening environment where employees’ feedback – positive and negative – are heard, acknowledged and acted on can create a more positive culture and a happier, more content workforce.
Those employees who seem to have an answer for everything, can be dangerous in so much as they refuse to accept or even acknowledge a different point of view. Employees who display this type of behaviour can become toxic because they refuse to accept feedback, which in turn affects their capacity to improve performance.
It only takes one bullying employee to ruin the morale, cohesion, and effectiveness of an entire team. And if placed in a customer facing role, they can cause serious damage to your reputation, which ultimately affects your bottom line. You should take employee complaints seriously, carefully documenting negative behaviours.
How to manage difficult employees
Strategies for managing difficult employees will depend on the circumstances. Common ways to approach difficult employees generally include:
- Do not ignore negativity. It is easy to brush off negative behaviour with remarks such as, ‘that’s just their personality.’ But if you fail to take action, this risks affecting others on the team, potentially harming workplace morale and culture. You may also face legal risks, for example if their behaviour is considered bullying or discriminatory under the Equality Act, the employer can be found to be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees.
- Understand the bigger picture. When an employee is difficult, it is easy to stop paying attention to what is actually going on behind the scenes. However, the best employers realise their best shot at improving a situation lies in having a clear understanding of it, including knowing the employee’s perspective. Sometimes, simply listening can resolve the issues. Perhaps the employee has a problem you can solve.
- Reject excuses. Remind the employee that they control their behaviour and attitude and complaining and finding fault is a choice. That said, an employer should always take a genuine interest in their employees. Then, you will be well-placed to determine whether the employee is dealing with a personal matter and it is affecting their professional attitude. If so, try to be sympathetic but do not condone their behaviour.
- Make the employee part of the solution. If the employee is otherwise a valued member of your team but they have a propensity for criticising everyone and everything, it fast becomes a weight on the shoulders of the business. Inform the employee that you are interested in hearing their concerns, but you would prefer they consult you direct rather than moan to their colleagues.
- Encourage positive behaviour. When you talk with the employee about their negative behaviour, give them a goal. Advise them that if they have a problem with a plan, person, or situation, they should counter it with something positive. If they continue to focus on the bad, make them consider the good as well. You cannot change how they think, but you can set standards around the language and tone they use in the workplace.
- Develop an action plan. Establish a reasonable timeline to allow for behaviour to change and set a future day to discuss progress. Set out the specific behaviours you wish to see improve and identify bench markers to demonstrate that the changes have been made. Let the employee have the space with which to accomplish the goals that have been set.
- Give clear behavioural feedback. In conjunction with developing an action plan above, you should give the employee clear feedback about what they need to be doing differently. Write down key points. Good documentation is not negative, it is prudent, particularly if you have to dismiss the employee.
- Be consistent. Do not blow hot and cold. If you say you are not OK with a certain behaviour, do not sometimes appear to be OK with it. Only set standards you are actually willing to hold on to, and then stick with them.
- Set consequences if things do not change. If problem employees do not believe their behaviour will have any real consequences, they are unlikely to change.
- Work through your company’s processes. Although good employers hold out hope for improvement, they also make sure they follow the company’s processes that will allow them to dismiss the employee if it comes to it. If you are already at that point, you should know what you are doing and going to do to clear the path towards dismissal, if it indeed turns out to be warranted.
- Know when to say goodbye. Work to resolve any difficulties or problems causing the employee’s negativity, and if the toxic behaviour continues, be prepared to let the employee go. If addressing the root cause of the employee’s unhappiness has not worked, it is important to decide whether you will take steps to dismiss the employee.
Can you dismiss a toxic employee?
If you are planning to dismiss an employee, you should first work out how long they have been employed by you. If they have less than two years’ service, they cannot typically claim unfair dismissal. Providing there is no discrimination involved, you can dismiss them by giving them either statutory notice or the amount of notice they are entitled to receive under their contract. That said, it is always wise to seek legal advice before making any rash decisions because you may still find yourself in the grips of an employment tribunal.
For those employees with more than two years’ service, there is nothing to stop you having a ‘protected’ or ‘without prejudice’ conversation to agree to leave the company, using a settlement agreement to prevent any claims being made.
Of course, if you want to follow a formal process you should:
- Raise any issues as soon as possible with the employee.
- Conduct any investigations and then discuss your findings with the employee, giving them an opportunity to put their case forward.
- Hold a formal grievance or disciplinary hearing. A Trade Union representative or colleague may accompany employees. They should also be given the right to appeal any decision.
- The employee should be informed of the decision in writing if disciplinary or if other action is justified. In cases of poor performance or misconduct, a written warning or improvement notice is typically given.
- The employee should be given time to improve. If the employee’s performance does not improve within a specified period, a final written warning should be issued.
- Issue a final written warning. This must set out the nature of the poor performance or misconduct and the change in behaviour that is expected with a final timescale. The warning should set out the consequences of failing to improve, such as dismissal or demotion.
- Dismiss the employee. Termination should be on notice with the employee either working out their notice period or payment being made instead of notice, depending on the terms within their employment contract.
- Instant dismissal without notice. You can only do this if an employee has committed gross misconduct, such as violence, theft, or other behaviour likely to bring your business into disrepute.
DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants provide expert guidance to employers on all aspects of workforce management and engagement, including training and advice on dealing with difficult employees. Working closely with our employment law colleagues, we offer employers holistic guidance to protect the best interests of your organisation. For help and support, contact us.
Dealing with difficult employees FAQs
How do you handle an employee with a bad attitude?
There are several strategies to deal with a toxic employee: do not write off the negativity, reject excuses, make the employee part of the solution, force positive behaviour, develop an action plan and know when to say goodbye.
How do new managers deal with difficult employees?
Try not to take their behaviour personally, stay professional and avoid becoming angry and frustrated. Give clear, behavioural feedback after obtaining the facts, and above all, remain objective.
What are the signs of a toxic employee?
Unhappy employees tend to emit negativity. Other symptoms include high levels of absenteeism, low energy, and lack of motivation. Such behaviours have a significant impact on staff morale and productivity.
How do you manage unmanageable employees?
Set firm written expectations and be clear that there are certain behaviours that are unacceptable in the workplace. Improvement plans should always be documented, which set out any consequences if things do not change for the better.
Last updated: 11 August 2021