HR Headaches: How to Deal With Difficult Employees

Find out how to deal with difficult employees so you can change negative behavior and improve poor performance.

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HR Headaches

As a company grows, it will likely start to hire more people. This is great for company and staff alike. However, as time goes on, you’ll eventually get that one employee who just isn’t fitting in.

You know, the one who’s constantly complaining about everything, offends coworkers, or struggles to work collaboratively with their team.

This can happen for many reasons, but there are really only 2 ways of dealing with these difficult personality types. Let them go or try to work through their issues with them.

It can be tempting to fire someone when they’re not working out, but what if they have redeeming qualities? What if they’re actually good at their job? What if their poor performance or attitude is directly related to circumstances you’re unaware of?

There are always ways you can better collaborate with these individuals. A good place to start is these tips for managing difficult employees.

1. Give yourself boundaries

Boundaries are “a statement of needs or desires that sets the stage for parameters and expectations of how you are to be treated in your relationship with others,” according to New York Times best-selling author Nedra Glover Tawwab.

When dealing with a difficult person at work, you can use boundaries to minimize the contact you have with them and limit interactions to only work matters. You don’t need to be involved with an employee’s personal life, especially if it contributes to a hostile work environment or poor company culture.

It can also mean practicing “no” statements with them. We all have the power to say “no” and push back on requests, especially from challenging employees. Always explain why you’re saying no, and make a recommendation for them to redirect the task or do it themselves.

2. Create buffers when needed

If you’re an employee dealing with a difficult colleague, you can ask your manager or another colleague to join you in meetings to diffuse any tension and to witness or document any any of the employee’s behavior that may be hostile.

If you’re a business owner trying to deal with a difficult employee, try to give them the tasks where they thrive on their own while minimizing the group work they’re involved with.

Some employees might be strong individual contributors, but their ability to work with others is lacking. This does not make them any less valuable. They just require a different working environment where they’re less likely to engage in disruptive behavior.

Some employees might be strong individual contributors, but their ability to work with others is lacking. This does not make them any less valuable. They just require a different working environment where they’re less likely to engage in disruptive behavior.

3. Don’t sink to their level, and (try) to let it roll off your back

If an employee barks at you, you don’t need to bark back. Remember that fueling a fire just makes a bigger fire. Rather, do your best to take their difficult actions in stride and let it roll off your back. Remember, their difficult behavior likely has nothing to do with you, and more to do with their own internal struggles.

If you catch yourself heating up in response to an interaction you’ve had with a difficult person, take a deep breath. Before reacting from an emotionally charged position, get back to your calm and centered place so you don’t say anything you regret.

A great way to reduce the impact of these negative emotions is simply by naming the feeling. To do this:

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

The more you respond from a calm place, the more power you can hold in the conversation.

4. Meditate before speaking or working with them

Getting into a calm headspace before interacting with a difficult person will help you be less reactive to their attacks. You can try repeating personal mantras before speaking with them to remind yourself of how you want to behave.

For example you might repeat the famous Viktor E. Frankl quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

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.

Choose the mindset you wish to put forward when you know you have an upcoming meeting with a challenging employee or coworker.

5. Try to understand their position

The best thing you can do in any conflict is to practice empathy and understand the other person’s position. This will help give you insights into why a person acts the way that they do.

For example, you may find a manager you work with to be difficult, but when you learn more about their situation you realize that their direct manager is putting them under a lot of pressure.

By taking time to understand their position, you might also learn something new that you’ve not previously considered.

Take the time to be kind to this person, even if it can be difficult. Do something to help them out, build up some dollars in their emotional bank to help build rapport and break the tension between you.

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?

On the other hand, something might be happening within the organization that is causing them to act out. When employees express difficulties, can you try and hear what truths might exist? 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. Each individual in your company is going through an emotional journey. Sometimes having someone to listen and validate their experiences can go a long way.

6. Keep boundaries between personal life and work life.

If there is nothing you can do to mitigate the situation, remember that it’s just work. This person is not someone you need to deal with once you clock out.

Do your best to keep this mindset and don’t let this person’s behaviors or negative attitude seep into your personal life. You control what affects you outside of work, and you don’t have to let difficult employees encroach on your personal time.

However, suppose the situation escalates, and the problem employee’s actions are so disruptive that it begins to increasingly hold weight in your personal life or job performance. In that case, it may be a situation for human resources to handle. If you feel that you’re being specifically targeted with hostility, harassment, inappropriate comments, or problematic behavior, you should talk to your HR representative. It might begin to have a negative impact on your productivity and mental health. This way, you have someone in your corner who can find the root causes of the negative behavior, implement measurable goals, potentially apply specific consequences, and monitor progress.

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7. Address their poor behavior if it gets in the way of employee performance

It’s also possible that this difficult character trait or undesirable behavior might be a total blind spot for this employee. If you can find a way to bring this behavior to light using a calm and empathic communication style (check out the non-violent communication method), they might thank you for pointing this out.

Keep in mind that when you critique behavior, even constructively, it may still be tough feedback for them to handle. Most people don’t like negative feedback, so frame it positively. Use first-person statements that communicate how their behavior affects you and the work environment, and how you can work together to solve the issue.

Share your tips on how to deal with difficult employees

If you’ve found yourself in a difficult work situation with one of your coworkers or clients, we hope these tips will help you navigate these uncomfortable situations and keep working more productively. Have any advice? Share it with our community by becoming a member (it’s free) and post on our Q&A forum.

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