The term "difficult employee" is typically used to refer to a worker who fails to conduct him- or herself in a responsible and/or professional manner in the workplace. Effectively dealing with such employees can be among the greatest challenges that face small business owners and managers. Few relish the prospect of disciplining or criticizing others in or outside the work environment. But when difficult employees become an issue, their failings must be addressed quickly and decisively lest they erode morale and efficiency. A natural management response is delay, temporizing, and wishful thought. When such traits are indulged, they just make things worse.
Problematic employee behavior is doubly difficult because it may have multiple causes not easily discerned. The causes may be work or home related, behavior- or health-related, may be triggered by other employees or outsiders, by changes of work, others' promotion, rising stress levels, etc. For these very reasons, the small business owner or leading manager will concern him- or herself initially, and always, with ensuring that internal causes are minimized. There will be fewer difficult employees in well-behaving work places than otherwise. As shown elsewhere in this volume (see Corporate Ethics) companies with high ethics experience much less unethical behavior. In well run operations, broad policy and structural approaches serve as preventive measures; careful and above all attentive management practices serve diagnostic purposes; and a clear, sequenced, escalating, well-documented "coping" process can rapidly bring closure.
A reasonably formal, reasonable orderly, well-organized, straight-forward, crisp but friendly work environment helps instill the right expectation in the workforce. Such an environment is almost always deliberate created and maintained by management by such means as setting working hours, initiating employees by having them read and sign brief but complete employment policies, and passing on the general "rules of the road." The more explicit, clear, and rational these are—and the more they are observed to be enforced—the more they contribute to the right work ambiance.
Maintenance of an efficient and visibly orderly work environment is only indirectly related to handling difficult employees, but once problems appear, this background is vital to the resolution of the problem. It is of central importance that the workplace have rules, that these be public, uniformly enforced, and equally applicable to all ranks. A somewhat disorderly work environment with poorly established routines, floating coffee breaks, many privileges, many exceptions to rules, temperamental bosses or tolerated high-jinks (perhaps because the cut-up is a very good salesman) and arbitrary rather than scheduled events make it much more difficult, later, suddenly to "wake up" to the need for discipline. Another way experts put this is that difficult employees are often a product of shoddily-run workplaces.
Assuming that the policies are good and the work environment is reasonably disciplined, managerial performance in conformity with policy will be consistent, alert, but also flexibly sensitive. In effect this means that that managers in charge of individuals will pay attention to those they supervise, maintain a proper but not a frosty or belligerent distance, apply company policies rather than personal whim, assiduously avoid inappropriate relations (like flirtation or special friendships), and promptly and willingly provide both positive and negative feedback with an objective air. Good management style will always involve clear and prompt communications when changes threaten to disrupt—even when the changes are positive. Good management will represent the next level up in a straightforward way, neither deifying nor bad-mouthing it. Managers will be loyal to their employees and promptly go to bat for them. They will avoid turf-oriented behavior and support collective goals—and will promote such attitudes in word and deed.
The emergence of a difficult employee will take place quite early in a well-management operation. Most of the time the "difficulty" will never even surface because it will have been dealt with effectively in it nascent stages. If it persist, the company will have in place a well-planned method of dealing with it in stages. The process will be orderly but escalating, beginning with information exchange and goal setting, followed by reviews, by increasing sanctions such as warnings, opportunities for appeal, notices, and finally discharge. In this entire process, management will behave rationally rather than emotionally. It will briefly but fully document the facts in writing because, in today's environment, that is simply sensible. Such methods will be followed even in operations that have at-will hiring policies—because the difficult employee may sue anyway. Top management will take an appropriate role in supervising such processes to ensure that policies are followed. Rarely if ever will a problem employee, managed in a rational, methodical, and orderly manner succeed in prevailing against the employer.
The pain, generally, of facing up to problems early is almost always negligible compared to the "uproar" that results from neglect and avoidance. Here the famous "Pay me now or pay me later" warning applies in full. The general rule—assuming, again, that good policies are in place and properly implemented—is to insist on rational and sensible behavior, full disclosure of problems on both sides, and clearly spelled out consequences which are actually applied.
Management experts cite several steps that entrepreneurs and managers should take when dealing with a difficult employee.
SEE ALSO Customer Retention
Adkerson, D. Michelle. How to Manage Problem Employees. M. Lee Smith Publishers, 2000.
"Ambiguity Obscures Employment-At-Will Issues." Connecticut Law Tribute. 23 May 2005.
Darby, Mark. "Good as (un)Golden: A set of tactics and some understanding will help you get through to those difficult employees." Contemporary Long Term Care. March-April 2004.
"Disrespect For People is Rife in Construction." Contract Journal. 30 November 2005.
Janove, Jathan. "Keep 'em at Will, Treat 'em for Cause: Employment at will preserves needed flexibility, but don't arbitrarily give employees the boot." HR Magazine. May 2005.
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"News." Personnel Today. 6 December 2006.
Schachter, Debbie. "Dealing with Difficult Employees." Information Outlook. February 2005.
Whitaker, Todd C. "Power Plays of Difficult Employees: A three-question litmus test to gauge the likely effect of your rules to change bad behavior." School Administrator. February 2003.
Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI