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How to deal with difficult employees: a guide for leaders

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If you’re a leader, it’s inevitable that you’ll have to deal with difficult employees at some point. Whether it’s an employee who is consistently late, has a negative attitude, or is simply not meeting expectations, managing difficult employees can be a challenging task.

As a leader, it’s important to approach each difficult employee situation with a clear head and a plan of action. This guide will provide you with tips and strategies for effectively managing difficult employees, so that you can maintain a positive work environment and ensure that your team is productive and successful.

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Identifying Difficult Employees

Common Types of Difficult Employees

As a leader, you may come across various types of difficult employees. Here are some common types:

  • The Negative Nancy: This employee always has something negative to say and can bring down the morale of the entire team.
  • The Slacker: This employee does the bare minimum and often misses deadlines or fails to complete tasks.
  • The Know-It-All: This employee thinks they know everything and can be resistant to feedback or suggestions from others.
  • The Drama Queen/King: This employee brings personal drama to work and can be disruptive to the team.
  • The Bully: This employee may harass or intimidate others, leading to a toxic work environment.

Signs of Difficult Employees

It’s important to be able to identify difficult employees early on. Here are some signs to look out for:

Signs of Difficult EmployeesExamples
Consistently missing deadlinesAn employee who regularly turns in work after the due date or fails to complete tasks on time.
Complaining frequentlyAn employee who constantly complains about their workload or coworkers.
Resistant to feedbackAn employee who becomes defensive or dismissive when given constructive criticism.
Causing conflicts with coworkersAn employee who is frequently involved in arguments or disagreements with their colleagues.
Showing a lack of motivationAn employee who appears disengaged or uninterested in their work.
Examples of difficult employees

Causes of Difficult Employee Behavior

As a leader, it’s important to understand what may be causing difficult behavior in your employees. By identifying the root cause, you can develop effective strategies to address the behavior and improve work performance. Here are some factors that may contribute to difficult employee behavior:

Factors that may contribute to difficult behavior:

  • Personal issues, such as stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Work-related issues, such as a heavy workload, unrealistic expectations, or lack of recognition
  • Interpersonal issues, such as conflicts with coworkers or a difficult boss
  • Organizational issues, such as poor communication, unclear policies and procedures, or a toxic work culture

It’s important to note that external and internal factors can also affect an employee’s behavior. External factors include things like family problems, financial difficulties, or health issues. Internal factors include personality traits, values, and beliefs. Both types of factors can impact an employee’s ability to perform their job duties effectively.

How external and internal factors can affect an employee’s behavior:

External factors that can affect an employee’s behavior include:

  • Family problems, such as divorce or illness
  • Financial difficulties, such as debt or job loss
  • Health issues, such as chronic pain or mental health disorders

Internal factors that can affect an employee’s behavior include:

  • Personality traits, such as introversion, extroversion, or neuroticism
  • Values and beliefs, such as a strong work ethic or a desire for work-life balance
  • Motivations, such as a desire for recognition or a need for security

Addressing Difficult Employees

As a leader, dealing with difficult employees can be a challenging task. However, it is important to address their behavior in a timely and effective manner to maintain a positive work environment. Here are some strategies you can use to address difficult employees:

Communication Strategies

Effective communication is key when dealing with difficult employees. It is important to listen to their concerns and provide clear expectations for their behavior. You can use the following communication strategies:

  • Active listening: Listen to their concerns and acknowledge their feelings.
  • Open-ended questions: Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer to encourage dialogue.
  • Clear expectations: Clearly communicate expectations for their behavior and performance.

Conflict Resolution Techniques

Difficult employees may create conflicts in the workplace. It is important to address conflicts in a timely and constructive manner. You can use the following conflict resolution techniques:

  • Collaboration: Work together with the employee to find a mutually acceptable solution.
  • Compromise: Find a solution that meets both your needs and the employee’s needs.
  • Mediation: Bring in a neutral third party to help resolve the conflict.

Providing Feedback and Coaching

Providing feedback and coaching can help difficult employees improve their behavior and performance. You can use the following feedback and coaching techniques:

  • Constructive feedback: Provide specific feedback on their behavior and performance and offer suggestions for improvement.
  • Coaching: Work with the employee to develop a plan for improvement and provide ongoing support and guidance.
  • Training: Offer training opportunities to help the employee develop new skills and knowledge.

Disciplinary Actions

When all else fails, disciplinary actions may be necessary to address difficult employee behavior. You can use the following disciplinary actions:

  • Verbal warning: Provide a verbal warning to the employee and document the conversation.
  • Written warning: Provide a written warning to the employee and document the conversation.
  • Suspension: Suspend the employee from work for a specified period of time.
  • Termination: Terminate the employee’s employment if the behavior continues or is severe.

Preventing Difficult Employees

Workplace Culture

Creating a positive workplace culture is key to preventing difficult employees. When employees feel valued and respected, they are more likely to be engaged and productive. Encourage teamwork, recognize and reward good work, and provide opportunities for growth and development. A positive workplace culture can also help reduce stress and conflict, which can lead to difficult behavior.

Setting Clear Expectations and Goals

One of the main reasons employees become difficult is because they are unclear about their role and what is expected of them. As a leader, it’s important to set clear expectations and goals for your employees. This includes outlining job responsibilities, performance standards, and deadlines. Make sure your employees understand what is expected of them and provide regular feedback to ensure they are on track.

Encouraging Open Communication

Open communication is essential for preventing difficult employees. Encourage your employees to share their thoughts and ideas, and be receptive to feedback. This can help prevent misunderstandings and conflict, and can also help identify potential issues before they become bigger problems. Regular team meetings and one-on-one check-ins are great ways to encourage open communication.

Hiring Practices

Preventing difficult employees starts with the hiring process. It’s important to hire people who are a good fit for your organization and who share your values. Look for candidates who have a positive attitude, strong work ethic, and effective communication skills. Conduct thorough interviews and reference checks to ensure you are hiring the right people for the job. Overall, preventing difficult employees requires a proactive approach. By creating a positive workplace culture, setting clear expectations and goals, encouraging open communication, and using effective hiring practices, you can prevent difficult behavior before it starts.


Dealing with difficult employees can be a challenging task for any leader. However, by following the tips and strategies outlined in this guide, you can effectively manage difficult employees and create a more positive work environment for everyone.

Remember that communication is key when dealing with difficult employees. By clearly communicating expectations, providing feedback, and actively listening to your employees, you can build trust and create a more productive work environment.

It’s also important to address difficult behavior early on before it becomes a bigger problem. By addressing issues head-on and providing support and resources to help employees improve, you can prevent conflicts from escalating and maintain a positive workplace culture.

Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself as a leader. Dealing with difficult employees can be stressful, so make sure to prioritize your own well-being and seek support from your colleagues or HR department when needed.


Difficult employees can display a range of behaviors, such as being consistently late, showing a lack of respect towards colleagues or management, refusing to follow instructions, or constantly complaining. It’s important to address these behaviors early on to prevent them from escalating.

When approaching a difficult employee, it’s important to remain calm and professional. Schedule a private meeting with the employee and express your concerns in a non-confrontational manner. Focus on the behavior, not the person, and provide specific examples of the behavior that needs to change.

If the difficult employee becomes defensive or hostile during the meeting, it’s important to remain calm and avoid becoming confrontational. Acknowledge their feelings and concerns, but reiterate the need for the behavior to change. If necessary, take a break and reschedule the meeting for a later time.

Motivating a difficult employee can be a challenge, but it’s important to find out what drives them. Set clear expectations and goals, and provide feedback and recognition when they meet or exceed them. Offer training or development opportunities to help them improve their skills and knowledge.

If the difficult employee’s behavior doesn’t improve despite your efforts, it may be necessary to take disciplinary action. Follow your company’s policies and procedures, and document the employee’s behavior and your attempts to address it. Consult with HR or legal if necessary.

To prevent difficult employees in the future, it’s important to have clear job descriptions, expectations, and policies in place. Hire employees who fit the company culture and values, and provide training and support to help them succeed. Address any performance issues early on to prevent them from becoming bigger problems.

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