6 Types of Difficult Employees and How to Handle Their Behavior

Behaviors of various types of difficult employees range from harmless to devastating. Here’s what to recognize and address for a healthier workplace.

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6 Types of Difficult Employees and How to Handle the Behavior

Hard work often refers to the labor required to fulfill a job. But in human resources and managerial terms it can also refer to interpersonal conflict resolution. That sometimes involves handling certain types of difficult employees whose behavior makes life downright painful for others.

It’s usually easier to identify someone as a difficult coworker than it is to know what to do about it. And while it’s no fun managing difficult employees, your entire operation might depend on you or another team member doing so effectively.

This article will explore 6 common types of difficult employees, their characteristic behaviors, and tips for turning things around.

What is a difficult employee?

Difficult employees demonstrate patterns of behavior that exceed what’s considered quirky, annoying, or the mark of a harmlessly negative person. Their mindsets often lead them to act, either intentionally or unwittingly, in ways that adversely impact others.

The extents can range from notoriously irritating to highly toxic. The pervasive effects of bad behavior left unaddressed can include:

  • Decreased productivity and increased frustration as valuable time, attention, and energy are drained by conflict.
  • Reduced job satisfaction and employee morale among the whole team.
  • Reduced retention of other employees the company seeks to keep. The costs of losing good talent due to ongoing workplace conflict can be devastating on multiple levels.
  • Civil or criminal harm and destruction.
  • Copycat behavior by other employees who believe they can also get away with it.

In this day and age, it’s worth noting that people can be difficult without even being in the same building. Remote work and virtual meetings may reduce instances of direct interaction, but this doesn’t change attitudes and intentions. People accustomed to mistreating others or undermining efforts don’t necessarily need direct access.   

Managing difficult employees

Managing difficult employees or enduring a difficult coworker can be draining over time. In fact, “overtime” isn’t far off for those working extra to deal with or mitigate the adverse effects.

Moreover, sometimes it’s hard to determine what’s behind the behavior. It could be intentional, or it could instead be a cognitive, developmental, emotional, or psychological impediment affecting one’s personality. Diplomatic HR personnel, managers, and staff tend to want to be fair and positively effective. And it can be tricky trying to reconcile frustration with compassion while attempting to discern true motives and impact.

Nevertheless, certain types of difficult personalities and conduct can disrupt day-to-day operations and employee morale. Therefore it’s critical to recognize and address the issues promptly, fairly, and effectively. At the bare minimum, leaders and colleagues must remain professional. Losing tempers in the workplace is not an option. Nor is ignoring the problem. For every situation, there’s a working balance.

certain types of difficult personalities and conduct can disrupt day-to-day operations and employee morale. Therefore it’s critical to recognize and address the issues promptly, fairly, and effectively.

Manipulation 

Manipulation is about gaining power and control unfairly through persuasive and/or coercive tactics. It typically involves the use of fear, flattery, lies, charm, threats, bribes, and/or abuse of influence for ulterior motives and selfish intent.

Manipulative personalities tend to enjoy stirring chaos and drama. They can cause people to second-guess the judgment, intelligence, motives, and mental-emotional stability of themselves and others. And they have no problem pitting individuals against one another to accomplish their goals.

While it’s possible for a person to be less-consciously manipulative, for many it’s an insidious psychological strategy. They understand the principles of cause and effect and consider perverting them an art to practice and perfect. The more masterful they become at it, the harder it can be to pin-point.

How to deal with manipulative behavior in the workplace 

Often the best way to handle manipulative employees is to avoid them. Regarding anything questionable, employees should seek a reliable source for the truth, additional perspective, or more information. They should stay focused on their own work rather than others’ drama. Also, manipulative employees should be told as little as possible about anything that’s not mutually mission-critical.

Managers should pay attention to reports and signs of manipulation within the organization and take them seriously. Make it clear that the behavior is unacceptable, and give appropriate official warning of consequences according to company policies. Document noteworthy events and offenses, and follow through with consequences if/as warranted.

Sabotage 

A saboteur’s conduct can range from mean-spirited at best to criminally devastating at worst. Sabotage in business can involve such activities as destruction of property, hindering of operations, and/or tangible or intellectual property theft. Essentially, it’s sinister behavior designed to bring down an organization or people within it.

Due to the stealth involved, sabotage typically goes undetected until some damage has been done. In hindsight, signs in a person or their conduct often include:

  • Lying, deceptiveness, manipulation; metaphorical “backstabbing”; sly, sneaky, underhanded behavior.
  • Misappropriation of company information and/or property.
  • Taking credit for others’ good work; blaming others when things turn out badly.
  • Vengefulness; consistent bad attitude; arbitrary and irrational anger and outbursts.
  • Withholding of resources or information needed to do a job.
  • Setting up people and/or situations for failure, blame, or negative consequences.

How to deal with sabotage in the workplace

Personal or organizational sabotage is intentional behavior and serious at any level. Employees and managers should be very careful and observant if they suspect or see signs of it. Some ways to deal with sabotage include:

  • Documenting suspicious encounters
  • Reporting suspicious activity to appropriate personnel
  • Consulting an attorney for legal perspective if necessary

Additional tips include capturing as much communication as possible in writing, and using email as a means to document correspondence and to recap following discussions. Those who notice sabotage should take what preventative security measures they can to protect equipment, data, and other company property. Employers can consider deploying what company surveillance measures are legally allowed.

When sufficient evidence presents, employers can take the matter to the extent legally permitted. This may mean anything from official reprimand to firing and/or pressing charges.

Arrogance 

Arrogance generally hurts the offender more than anyone else, as this personality trait tends to alienate others.

And it’s not necessarily a mask for incompetence. Many arrogant individuals are excellent at what they do. They can be extraordinarily productive, a valuable source of new ideas, and talented and skilled beyond other employees and managers.

The problem is that they know this. And, rather than simply embracing a healthy and helpful sense of self-confidence, they insist that others know it too.

Arrogant individuals often exude a sense of specialness and entitlement. They may act as though they’re above coworkers and workplace rules and believe that the company cannot manage without them. They can also be uncooperative on and off the job and may tend to belittle others. Behavior can be either overt, unconscious, or more passive-aggressive in nature.

How to deal with arrogant behavior in the workplace 

Those who notice arrogant behavior can try a direct, authoritative, yet non-confrontational approach at first. They can consider themself an objective observer in a position to help raise this person’s awareness of their behavior and its effects.

Some tips include:

  • Opening up a private conversation with the person behaving arrogantly, and inviting them to open up about it. Sometimes arrogance is born of things they can identify and resolve, such as unaddressed insecurities or patterns of disproportionate praise.
  • Prompting them to ponder why they think it’s necessary to act this way and what they hope to achieve. What alternative behavior would be more appropriate?

Those who hadn’t realized how they come across may benefit from the thought-provoking insights and make changes. Others may react very differently, perhaps by throwing a tantrum or presenting themselves as a victim. This could be a manipulative tactic or merely a lack of coping skills. Either way, employees noticing the arrogant behavior should not engage or perpetuate the setup and instead maintain composure and regain control of the conversation.

Nitpicking 

A person who nitpicks often presents as a chronic complainer about what others do and how they do it. Often they’re perfectionistic and hardworking, and obsess unnecessarily over insignificant details. They may pressure others to work exactly how they prefer or even avoid delegating work due to perfectionistic standards.

How to handle nitpicking at work

Sometimes these difficult coworkers just can’t help themselves. It’s OK to respectfully acknowledge their hard work, dedication, and presumably good intent and quietly consider the critique. If it’s valid criticism, employees can heed it, but if it’s not — they should dismiss it.

If constant criticism persists, employees may have to either completely ignore it or firmly ask the nitpicker to stop. Ultimately, their professional integrity should guide them.

Gossip

Rarely is gossip part of anyone’s official job description. Whether it’s born of malice or bad habit, spreading rumors and talking behind others’ backs is immature and harmful. It has no place in a professional setting.

Others know it too, yet many don’t know how to deal with it. So they don’t. And the gossip continues, to the gratification of some, the discomfort of others, and the degradation of all.

How to handle gossip at work

Employees should lead by example. They can call out the bad behavior and avoid engaging in it, even as a passive listener. Regardless of their intent, without an audience gossips can’t operate. Employee can model what it takes to put gossipers out of business.

On the HR front, consider establishing and enforcing policies regarding office gossip.

Bullying 

Bullying can be covert, as in under the radar, or overt, as in a public display. The abuse can be verbal, psychological, physical, or otherwise.

Bullying behavior is designed to intimidate, weaken, and/or control others. Typically the abuse is directed at those the bully perceives as less empowered or somehow “easy” targets. That in itself can cause victims to question their sense of self-worth and how they’re perceived by others.

At a minimum, bullying can be embarrassing, demoralizing, and disheartening. It can also result in serious trauma, depression, dysfunction, and/or physical harm.

How to deal with bullying in the workplace

Employees can:

  • Understand that there is no excuse for bullying. It’s unacceptable, regardless of the underlying issues.
  • Stand up to it, whether on behalf of themself or someone else. Document the behavior according to company policy.
  • Establish clear, healthy boundaries and maintain them.
  • Inform management or HR so they can take appropriate action. This might also include offering moral and mental health support to those affected.

Remember that if bullying persists, employees may seek another job.

Despite various types of difficult employees, you have one standard to uphold

By recognizing and understanding signs of strife, you can address them more quickly and effectively. If your ultimate goal is workplace respect, engagement, and productivity, that standard must be established and communicated companywide. Additional management tips include:

  • Amend your employee handbook to include behavioral policies.
  • Model the mindfulness you’d like others to adopt.
  • When necessary and useful, interject as issues arise in a way that preserves dignity while redirecting dynamics.
  • Have the tough conversations when necessary. For employees struggling to overcome dysfunctional behavior, suggest they take advantage of counseling via the company health plan.
  • Observe and monitor subsequent behavior.
  • Take opportunities to acknowledge positive change or incremental progress.

If a person cares and ultimately means no harm, better behavior can be learned. If a person doesn’t care or does mean harm, let due consequences prevail.

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