Last reviewed 28 November 2018

Difficult people are everywhere, says Bob Patchett, and any sizeable workforce probably includes a few near-saints, a larger group of people who can be difficult occasionally, and a few who thrive on being difficult.

The ones whose performance or behaviour is clearly below standard may be dealt with through your discipline or performance procedures, but there may be some who, while not breaking rules or working below par, nevertheless are unpleasant to work with, cause offence or are just general nuisances. Their unpleasantness can affect productivity and cause resentment among other employees if they are allowed to continue. So, what can be done?

Get rid of them?

A common reaction for dealing with difficult employees is dismissal, especially before they have acquired full employment protection rights. But consider what you do if the photocopier or computer are playing up. Do you rush to scrap them and buy replacements? You try to identify the problem and fix the machine yourself or bring in someone who can. So, is this perhaps a better approach to dealing with a difficult employee? Turning a problem on its head often points the way to a solution. You have a poor employee, you want a good employee, not a different one who may come along loaded with different difficulties.

  • Changing an employee from bad to good may be cheaper than recruiting a replacement.

  • Good management may turn a difficult employee into a star performer.

Check your assumptions

Before approaching a difficult employee, ascertain the real problem. Writing it down can help you focus. Do other employees present a similar problem? If so, why pick on this one? Are you prejudiced in some unconscious way? You are doubtless mindful of discrimination legislation, but does the person remind you of someone from your past whom you disliked, or do they represent the sort of people you, for whatever reason, just do not like? These unconscious forces can influence our perception of people in powerful ways. Have reports of this person’s difficulty come to you second hand? If so, try to get direct evidence yourself, and question the validity of the complaints. You may find that a strong personality on your staff has taken a dislike to someone and has caused colleagues to develop the same opinion. Be mindful that some of history’s great achievers have been quite unlikeable, so pure dislike must not affect your assessment of the person’s value to the organisation.

  • Are your views about the person truly objective?

  • Have you witnessed the difficulties yourself?

How can you take the individual to task?

Do not start action immediately after the employee has done something to annoy you. This should not be, nor be seen to be, a disciplinary interview. Your purpose is to investigate the problem and find a way of resolving it, so pick the time carefully. Tell the employee that you wish to discuss a behaviour problem, but the meeting is to be both confidential and informal. When the employee is settled, describe the problem as you see it, then present your evidence as clearly and as briefly as is practicable. Ask the employee to just listen as you will give full opportunity for their response when you have finished; you may suggest that the person makes notes. You must own the problem and not involve other people because if they are affected, it is a department problem for you to solve. If you yourself have experienced problems with the employee, say so clearly and give recent examples. But if your concern is the effect of the employee’s behaviour on other people, do not mention complaints, but instead express your concern about the effect the employee is having on colleagues.

Rather than criticise what the employee does, indicate the effect of the behaviour. A comment such as “You are rude to your colleagues” is provocative, so better to express the impact such as “When you loudly criticise the work of your colleagues, they feel hurt. Could you not point out the problems in a way they would find less offensive?” This is more powerful if you are the one the employee offends because they cannot honestly argue with how you feel. In response to “that should not offend you”, say forcefully “well it jolly well does“, and be more specific. “You made me feel that I was treating you unfairly. Do you think I was?” The employee may of course completely reject everything that you say, but persevere by quoting other examples of what they have said or done, and how it impacts on you and colleagues. Make clear throughout that you are commenting on the effect of the employee’s behaviour and not making an attack on their personality. You dislike the behaviour, not the person.

  • Own the problem.

  • Present and discuss it as a problem, not a complaint.

  • Concentrate on the employee’s behaviour, not personality.

Why does the employee behave this way?

Expressing your concerns about the effect of the employee’s behaviour may cause them to change for the better, though you may need to dig deeper in hope of finding the cause. There may be an old insult by a senior manager — perhaps by you — that has turned into resentment against the manager and the whole organisation. Ask about the job, how it is going, any problems, is there some aspect of it that the employee dislikes. A useful question is “What are the best and the worst things that have happened to you while working here?” Any of these questions may produce a catalogue of misery, but might indicate something that you may be able to rectify or explain.

  • Search out any underlying problem.

  • Encourage the employee to express their feelings.

Does it have to be the employer’s fault?

No, the underlying problem may have nothing to do with work. The employee may be overwhelmed by domestic or financial problems. The wife or children playing up, family illness, cannot pay the rent or gas bill. The person cannot take action against the bank, the landlord, the gas company, and is unable to sort out the domestic issues, so at work the anger may be vented on the organisation, the boss and colleagues by being objectionable, whether consciously or otherwise, because these are accessible targets that can do little to retaliate. Listening to the employee and showing that you understand may be all that is required because the person is likely then to feel less lonely and isolated. Do whatever you can yourself to help, but you may have to arrange for the employee to receive outside advice or assistance.

  • Look beyond the workplace.

  • Act as a sympathetic friend.

Will it work?

If it doesn’t, and behaviour continues to be unacceptable, then you may have to resort to your disciplinary procedure having warned the employee that they must behave differently. But there is a good chance that taking the approaches outlined above will produce the change that you need. And it is just possible that the effort the employee was putting into being objectionable will be redirected into work — and you have produced a star performer.