3 Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Employees

Do you have a staff member who’s challenging to work with?

difficult employees graphic
Self-regulation, empathy, boundaries — here are tips for handling difficult behavior

Difficult employees come in many shapes or forms. Whether it’s the employee who always stirs the pot on public Slack channels, decreases morale for the team, or constantly voices complaints, your role within HR is to set the standards for acceptable behavior while still ensuring that each individual feels heard and is given the opportunity to succeed within their role.

If you’re trying to tactfully handle difficult employees, here are a few strategies for creating a harmonious organization while still protecting your own energy and values.

1. Identify when you start “seeing red”

When we say “seeing red,” we mean that sudden feeling of anger and surge of negative emotions that can bubble up when interacting with a difficult individual. An important first step is being able to self-regulate and identify this feeling during a stressful moment can make all the difference when trying to handle a difficult employee with tact. Self-regulation means identifying the negative feelings inside of you and taking necessary steps to calm yourself and respond in a way that will elicit a positive response.

Think about the last time at work where an angry employee came to your desk to complain about something in a rude manner. Of course, taking their complaint comes hand in hand with the job, but certain instances may trigger strong and reactive emotions. Ask yourself, what does it feel like inside your body when you started to “see red”? A great way to reduce the impact of these negative emotions is simply by naming the feeling.

To do this:

  1. Locate the feeling in your body. Is it an elevated heart rate? Tension in your wrists? Heating up in your face?
  2. Once you can locate the feeling, name the attached emotion. Is it frustration? Anger? Defense?
  3. Next, welcome the emotion into your consciousness. This will help you tame it and reframe it so that you can have a productive conversation with whomever it is you are dealing with.

When you feel your body heading into attack mode, create guardrails for yourself to help keep your cool in heated moments.

When you feel your body heading into attack mode, create guardrails for yourself to help keep your cool in heated moments. This could look like:

  • Going for a walk before sending off an angry email
  • Taking 10 deep breaths before engaging in a conversation
  • Asking yourself “how would the calm version of myself handle this scenario?”

Create a game plan to return to your emotional homeostasis and not regret losing your cool.

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2. Empathize with their difficulties

If you’re noticing a flow of difficult behavior coming from an employee, their negative energy may be misdirected at you. It’s possible that something is happening in their life that is causing them to lash out inappropriately. Try and think back on how this employee has acted in the past.

Ask yourself:

  • Is this behavior something new?
  • Could it be a reaction to something externally?
  • Could there be something going on at home?

With COVID-19 still a serious concern, people’s home situations are more challenging and testing their limits. This may cause more irritable and unmotivated behavior at work. When appropriate, schedule time to speak with the person and get to know the full story and circumstance.

Another possible reality with the difficult behavior is that there may be something happening within the organization that causes them to act out. When employees express difficulties, can you try and hear what truths might exist?

Another possible reality with the difficult behavior is that there may be something happening within the organization that causes them to act out.

Consider:

  • Are they in a role that does not match their interests or skill set?
  • Has the company acted in a way that is downright infuriating for the employee?
  • Has the employee been put in “no-win” situations?

Before assuming anything, offer a compassionate ear as each individual in your company may be going through their own emotional journey. Sometimes having someone to listen and validate their experiences can go a long way.

3. Don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries

It’s important that you don’t become the emotional punching bag for all your employees. If you need to have a 1-on-1 conversation to let an employee know that their behavior won’t be tolerated, do so in a private setting, and focus the conversation on their behavior and not their character. Give them clear direction in what you expect from them going forward.

If this difficult behavior consists without any improvement, make sure to involve the appropriate members of management to help, and document any incidents as well!

Remember that in order to take care of the organization, HR needs to take care of themselves first and should not be subject to abuse from employees.

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