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Strategies and Tips for Dealing with a Difficult Employee

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You know that person. That employee who always arrives late and leaves early or frequently calls in ''sick.'' 44% of employees say they have worked with coworkers who have abused workplace rules and/or regulations, according to a recent study by the Employment Law Alliance. This growing trend of ''difficult employees'' raises a question: ''What options are available for business owners or human resource professionals when dealing with difficult employees?''

Management is wise to quickly address a difficult employee with a bad attitude, experts say, since such negativity is contagious and can quickly impact the entire office staff. If the actions and/or attitudes of a negative employee are not adequately addressed, they can develop into a company-wide morale issue.

The attributes and behaviors that classify a “difficult employee” are numerous. A few characteristics include:


  • late arrivals and early departures on a regular basis (which are not part of an accommodation)

  • unexcused excessive absenteeism

  • disrespectful, abusive, vulgar, or rude language toward coworkers, managers, and/or customers

  • poor attitude toward the company and/or coworkers

  • constant complaints, gossip, or other disruptive behaviors that bring down employee morale

  • poor or unprofessional job performance and/or quality of work
Business owners or supervisors of employees who exude this type of poor work ethic should discuss the actions or behaviors with their employees as soon as they notice them. Unscheduled absenteeism costs companies an estimated $850,000 per year, according to the “2006 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey.” Instances of poor performance, whether manifested in the form of absences, insubordination, tardiness, or problematic behavior with other employees, may intensify or multiply if not addressed at their onset; however, if management follows proper procedures, future incidents can be prevented.

Upon compiling the necessary documentation, supervisors should initiate an in-person meeting with the employee to discuss all of the issues at hand. The conversation should be non-confrontational and focused strictly on the documented performance problems.

The manager should reiterate the company’s philosophy of having an open-door policy and highlight that the intention of the meeting is to have a positive discussion in which both the employee and the employer can openly review issues and develop proactive solutions. It is wise to have an office manager or HR executive attend the meeting.

During the meeting, management should solicit feedback from the employee to determine his or her recommendations for resolving the problem. Based on the discussion, an action plan should be developed that includes tangible expectations, specific measurable goals, a strategy, and an estimated deadline for meeting those goals. Also, a timetable should be established for a follow-up meeting with the employee to review whether he or she has met the established goals.

Additional proactive measures can be taken to mitigate potential employee behavioral problems, including a clearly written and up-to-date employee handbook that should be reviewed with all employees upon hire. The company’s policies and procedures should highlight vacation and sick-day policies, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, and what types of behavior may lead to disciplinary measures. Company policies also must clearly communicate to employees that actions constituting or promoting a hostile work environment will not be tolerated. When both managers and employees understand their rights and responsibilities, the potential for discord is greatly reduced. Furthermore, if a company mandates compliance, it can help promote consistent treatment of all employees. Management must consistently follow through with appropriate discipline when such actions occur.

Business owners should also conduct annual employee-performance evaluations. While 95% of companies regularly conduct performance reviews, only 11% indicate that they are very satisfied with the current process, according to a study by the Aberdeen Group. During the evaluation, goals and objectives should be discussed to ensure that each employee is aware of all of the requirements of his or her job description. The descriptions should contain clearly defined matrices for performance for each position at the company. Each matrix should discuss employee responsibilities and include expectations and best practices that are specific and measurable for each position.

Enforcement of corporate policies and management of behavior can contribute to either a decrease or an increase in negative employee actions. To create a fair and appropriate corporate culture, business owners need to consider implementing regular internal management-training classes.

These training programs should include components on appropriate management behavior and expectations, methods for handling difficult employee situations, and company policies and procedures. The lessons learned from these classes can provide managers with guidance on preventing harassment in the workplace, establishing and enforcing proper procedures for terminating and disciplining employees, promoting diversity, and complying with employment laws. Regular training can also help to reduce the risk of liability in the workplace and resulting lawsuits while increasing productivity and overall employee satisfaction. An additional option for business owners is to work with a professional employee organization (PEO). PEOs provide small and medium-size businesses with full-service human resource management and payroll activities. A major benefit of a PEO relationship is client access to experts. With specialists in a wide range of HR issues, from hiring to firing to compliance with employment laws, PEOs are available to assist employers with employment-related situations.

An employee’s resistance, unwillingness, or inability to change despite management addressing the situation is grounds for further review of the circumstances. To reduce the risk of liability, employee behaviors, evaluations, and warnings need to be documented with specific incidents that include the date of such infractions, the actions management took to alert the employee, and the outcome of any initial intervention. In extreme situations, termination of the employee may be necessary.

During the termination meeting, the supervisor should take steps to alleviate problematic scenarios by fully explaining the guidelines for determining the decision. The discussion should include detailed information about the ongoing pattern of disruptive behavior, the excessive absenteeism, the quality of work, etc. The employee’s personnel file should include accounts of specific incidences of poor performance, summaries of meetings held with the employee, and documentation of other company-initiated efforts to correct the behavior, as well as formal warnings of probation or dismissal.

In the end, dealing with a difficult employee requires a large dose of patience. Managers need to communicate consistently with a difficult employee about specific areas for improvement, offer ongoing feedback as to whether change has occurred, and document these conversations in writing for the employee’s permanent file. A manager who discharges a poor performer without offering constructive feedback and documentation runs the risk that the employee may react with hostility or through legal action.

While it is never ideal to have a difficult employee on your staff, the tips outlined above can assist business owners and managers in positively and decisively dealing with problematic employees. Good management requires the recognition of persistent problems and the proper handling of inappropriate behavior so that any negative impact is minimized. Dealt with correctly, a difficult employee can be turned into a productive staff member—or at the very least, his or her negative impact can be minimized.

About the Author

Mark Benjamin is the general manager of ADP TotalSource, a division of Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (NYSE: ADP). With more than $7 billion in revenues and more than 570,000 clients, ADP is one of the world’s largest providers of business outsourcing solutions. Leveraging more than 55 years of experience, ADP offers the widest range of HR, payroll, tax, and benefits administration solutions from a single source. ADP’s cost-effective, easy-to-use solutions for employers provide superior value to companies of all types and sizes. For additional information, please call 800-HIRE-ADP or visit www.adptotalsource.com.
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