How to Deal with a Difficult Employee

No workplace is immune from conflict, and one frequent source of conflict is the difficult employee. Any type of stress, including in interpersonal relations, triggers a fight-or-flight response, and one of those two choices are what an owner or manager may make first when faced with unacceptable behavior. While literally running away is rare in a workplace (although retreating to a private office is an option for some), the flight response can take the form of doing nothing or minimizing the situation with the hope that it goes away. The fight response can take the form of lashing out with threats, intemperate speech, and/or threatening body language. Neither category of responses is likely to solve the problem.

Even when “you’re fired” truly is the proper way to deal with the issue, an employer may want to find a better way to let a difficult employee go than making a quick decision based on emotion. In most cases, however, employers will want to try to resolve the conflict without resorting to termination. Here are five steps that can help you deal with a difficult employee.

1. Recognize and Accept Your Emotions

A common meditation technique is visualization. With your eyes open or closed—whichever is more comfortable for you—imagine you are witnessing your own feelings and thoughts from a distance. They can be clouds, leaves floating on a stream, or some other metaphor that allows you to pay attention to your own feelings without judging them, dismissing them, or being overwhelmed by them. The technique is simple, but it isn’t easy. Take a little time to practice it.

First, tend to your own emotions without making judgments or assumptions. It is easy to move rapidly from a strong emotional response to a rash act. Take a few deep breaths, and if you practice meditation, meditate. This can be as simple as sitting still for a while and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging them or acting upon them.

Listen to your own internal self-talk without judgment or censorship. Go ahead and let each reaction well up without acting upon it. Allow yourself to think of whatever you’d like to say and to make all the judgments you’d like to make. At this point, you may recognize just how much of your own mental real estate you have allowed the difficult employee to occupy. No wonder you’re upset! It’s time to accept every feeling without acting upon any of them.

2. Identify and List the Specifics

Second, now that you’ve had a chance to recognize and accept every urge to make less-than-professional characterizations, it’s time to think about specifics. You may even be calm enough to look at the situation from the difficult employee’s point of view. If you were in their shoes, what would be helpful for you to say? What specific behaviors need to be addressed? It is time for pen and paper, and maybe more than one draft.

There may be two categories to consider. One is job performance and the other is the manner of that performance. Does the difficult employee have acceptable attendance and work product? If not, start the list with what needs to be improved. This can be as simple as a sales goal that must be met. Attendance, amount of work done, and quality of work can be measured—as much as possible, identify specifics. You may also want to balance the list with items in which the employee’s performance is satisfactory.

The other category is the manner of performance. The employee may be doing what needs to be done but in a way that causes unnecessary friction with others. In this case, the list should include the whos, whats, and whens of specific incidents that lay out the problem as objectively as possible. This metric may be more difficult to find a yardstick for, but any specific measure is better than none. “No eye rolling at meetings, maintain a professional demeanor” beats “lose the attitude.”

3. Make an Action Plan

Third, once you have a list of specific behaviors that need to change and how they will be measured, add the steps that will be taken based on specific outcomes. It is time to be realistic. Will you really fire the employee if they take another two-hour lunch? Making a threat but not carrying it out is the “flight” option. The employee will definitely notice if you let them get away with a behavior you said was no longer acceptable. As much as possible, find ways to measure behaviors and outcomes. “Be nicer or get fired” is not as helpful as “if I receive another customer complaint in the next three months, I will do x.”

If you have a superior, you will want either to involve them in working out the plan or get their approval. The action plan will fail if you are not allowed to carry it out. Also, the action plan must be legal. For example, in a recent case that reached the Supreme Court, a fired employee argued that he was justified in breaking a workplace rule in order not to freeze to death. In most cases involving difficult employees, this is not the issue, but if your productivity goals are so high that it places the health of the employee at risk, you may want to change those goals. Another example: if an employee is disabled, have you made a reasonable accommodation to help the employee perform their duties as required?

You may also set out some rewards, such as a performance review that is better than the previous one, or a day off. It may also work to your advantage to allow for the employee to modify the action plan so that they may take a more active role in improving the situation.

4. Have the Talk, and Don’t Forget to Listen

Nobody enjoys “the talk.” Laying out the problems you are having with another person is likely to make you both emotional. As much as possible, find ways to defuse the negative emotional content of the conversation. In most workplace cultures, discussions of performance are held privately, with no one present who doesn’t need to be there.

Once the conversation starts, avoid accusations such as “you’re screwing up too much” or “I’m fed up!” This will make the employee defensive. Instead, use emotionally neutral language such as “I am concerned about x and how it is affecting our productivity.”

People appreciate being listened to. Even if you are tired of the difficult employee’s excuses, give them a hearing. If you listen, you may notice something that can be helpful. The weight of problems at home or frustrations at work, even if there is little to no remedy, can be lessened simply by offering your ear. This does not mean you have to give the difficult employee yet another opportunity to fail to meet your needs, but listening may give you an insight on how to help the employee see things differently. For example, if they feel unappreciated, think of something to praise them for and praise them. If they feel insecure, tell them they are a valuable part of the team. You may have added some positive items to the list for just this reason. With a little recognition for what the employee has done well, you may get the employee to be willing to admit that there are areas that need improvement. A sympathetic tone will generate less defensiveness than a dismissive one.

A repeat of step one can be of help here. If you have recognized and accepted your negative expectations (he’ll be rude again, we’ve had this conversation too many times before), chances are you will be open to allowing yourself a hope of a better outcome.

The point of the meeting, however, is to present the employee with your specific list of the expected improvements and the consequences if they are not met. Ask the employee if there is any ambiguity or anything that needs to be clarified. If need be, make changes to the list accordingly. Try to get the employee to buy into the plan or at a minimum understand and accept it.

5. Carry the Plan Out

This is another step that is simple in concept but difficult in execution. Getting someone to change their habits is at least as difficult as changing your own. The fight-or-flight response is ready to defeat you again. If the employee slips, don’t lose your temper or turn a blind eye. Follow the action plan. Keep your promises and carry out your threats. Be as objective, consistent, and fair as possible. The difficult employee is not the only one checking your actions against your words. Even if the plan ends with an employee’s being fired, you and the other employees will know that the dismissal was reasonable.


Difficult employees bring up emotions that most of us do not want to deal with. We may either lose our temper or try to ignore the problem. We may even ask others to deal with the employee rather than face the issue ourselves. But the only professional way to deal with a difficult employee’s behavior is directly. The employee must be given clear and specific terms on which their future behavior will be judged. This is the only way to be fair. And if a misbehaving employee is treated unfairly—either with too much leniency or too little—every other employee will wonder if they will be the next to be treated unfairly. The fight-or-flight response is part of our nervous system, and it helps us survive. But in a professional environment, yelling or hiding are never the best response to a problem.

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