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When Good Workers Go Bad: How to Manage Difficult Employees
Cameron Bishop

November 14, 2017

Difficult employees. Every workplace has them, and the common cry resounds, “Why can’t we just fire them?”

Why? Because firing people is expensive. Termination means you’re throwing all that employee’s training, experience, and corporate knowledge away. Add in the time and overall cost of searching for a replacement, interviewing all the candidates, screening them, hiring them, training them, and getting them up to the level of the terminated employee is often twice their salary.

If the terminated employee was part of upper management, you could be looking at four to five times the cost of their salary to replace them. It’s a far greater cost than if you had been able to turn their bad attitude around.

Then there are the legal considerations involved in firing, which can lead to additional costs in defensive legal action. Generally, if a person proves to be difficult in the workplace, he or she will be far more difficult as a disgruntled former employee in the courtroom when lawsuits begin to fly.

Are they just difficult employees … or impossible?

Finally, there’s the difference between being difficult to work with and being impossible. As a CEO, my first reaction to people complaining about someone being difficult is to tell them to figure out a way to get work done. We’re professionals and we don’t need to want to take a combined family vacation with a co-worker to have a decent work relationship.

Unfortunately, the line between difficult and impossible is razor-thin and once someone enters the “impossible” territory, that’s when managers must intervene. Management can coach, mentor and even discipline “difficult” but sadly, “impossible” generally ends in termination.

So, what can you do to eliminate the risk of difficult becoming impossible? First, be sure your hiring and vetting practices are rigorous. The tougher it is for a candidate to get a job, the more likely you’ll weed out a potentially bad hire. Depending on the position you’re filling, make sure you and your other managers spend enough time with them to make the best possible hiring decisions.

Abrasive tendencies will rear their ugly heads at some point if a candidate has to jump through a tough series of hoops. And if those hoops reveal a glimpse of “difficult” in a job candidate—who should be trying to make a good impression—you know you could be in trouble down the line if you make the hire.

What to do when a current employee becomes difficult

Now, let’s turn to current employees who are becoming difficult. Recognize that people sometimes act difficult because they want attention. They are focused on their needs first, and the needs of others are always secondary. Their emotional immaturity is just part of who they are, and it’s your job to figure out how to make them as productive as possible.

Difficult people’s emotional immaturity leads to a variety of unacceptable behaviors which can tear down the morale of those around them. Some might use sarcasm; others might use put-downs; and some might be downright aggressive and call people names. Keep in mind that each of these tactics is an attempt by difficult people to make themselves feel superior. Unfortunately, they do so at the expense of their co-workers and they drag down the overall level of productivity as a result.

While some difficult people are aggressive, others are difficult by being irritatingly passive. They complain about their lot in life and waste huge amounts of time whining and blowing small issues out of proportion. They blame others for failures, conveniently leaving out details of their own roles in doomed ventures. By playing the victim, these employees never have to face their own inadequacies—and they will never learn to overcome them until their behavior is confronted.

There are certain tactics that will work across the board, no matter which type of difficult employees you are dealing with:

  • Listen to them. The only way to identify their unmet needs is to talk to them and find out what’s really going on.
  • Paraphrase what you think they are saying to be sure you are really understanding them. Occasionally, hearing their problems interpreted by another makes them realize how petty their problems sound. Or, they will find their own solution when hearing it from someone else’s perspective.
  • Help the difficult person develop an ideal course of action, weighing the pros and cons and looking at the big picture.
  • Help difficult people achieve short-term goals to build their self-esteem and their belief in themselves as problem solvers.

Then there are some other things you can try, depending on the difficult employees you are trying to reach:

  • Isolate the trigger of their difficult behavior. Is it a thing, a person, a task? Help them address the trigger and overcome the negative effect it causes.
  • Identify a pattern in the difficult behavior. Most difficult people act up after something “lights the fuse” — at work or at home.
  • Stay positive. Getting negative plays into their need for excess attention.
  • Be direct and non-judgmental—using only the facts and leaving emotions out of it.
  • Know when you are out of your league. Sometimes only trained psychological professionals will be able to help. Refer difficult employees to your company’s EAP, if you have one.

Whatever you do, don’t try to manipulate them into quitting. If you believe they’re worth the effort (and everyone is) try discipline and counseling to help. Then, if that doesn’t work, and you’ve exhausted your options, it’s time to start the termination process. It’s the least enjoyable part of management, but it’s also a necessity at times.

 


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