How Do You Address a Challenging Employee?

Updated on May 23, 2017

By Kim Bassett

“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.” — Robert Evans, American film producer.

As a leader, those are the three things to keep in mind as you enter a situation where you are meditating or addressing difficult issues with an employee or employees. In the heat of the moment, everyone remembers the situation differently, from his or her perspective.  These remembrances can be very different when recalled later. 

Listen. Figure out what the underlying issue is. Ask the employee what the issue is.  I don’t believe people get up in the morning, get ready for work, and think to themselves “how can I be more difficult today.”  Carefully and objectively listen to your employee’s concerns. Discern whether they are just being difficult or if there is truth and merit to their claim. Be prepared to accept that there may be some truth to what is being said and be willing to address it appropriately. Talk to employees that work with the problem employee. Get their side of the story to get a complete look at the situation.

Develop a plan.  Assess the severity of the situation.  Ask the employee or employees involved what they think would resolve the issue.  Is it just a personality conflict?  Is it boredom with the job?  Something personal that has nothing to do with the job?  The plan may need to include moving the employee to a different department (remove them from the situation), change the employee’s hours, etc.  Ask them what they believe would make them happy with their workplace. Sometimes the employee is acting out just because they feel they are not being heard.  If the employee has “gone too far” identify what “too far” actually entails. If there are ways to make the situation better without dismissing the employee, identify what those are.   It is always important to have a witness present when you are interacting with the employee.  Remember, there are three sides to every story—especially when you are counseling a difficult employee. 

Be creative and flexible with your plan.  Not every plan will be straightforward or easy.  Sometimes you have to be creative.  For example, I once had two employees that were both wonderful and very talented.  They just could not work together.  They were constantly in my office complaining about each other.  I tried everything.  I finally said I was at a point where I was going to have to terminate them both as they were both responsible.  But, as a last resort, I required a daily meeting with them both, together.  At the meeting they were required to warmly greet each other at the beginning and say something nice about the other’s work from the previous day.  After day 2, they both swore they got the message and begged me to stop.  I insisted we would continue for 30 days because I didn’t want to lose either of them.  I think we finally ended these sessions after two weeks because I could see the daily meetings between them became more of a conversation versus teeth-gritting exercise.  By being creative, I was able to preserve two great employees.

Implement the Plan.  Meet with the employee and discuss the plan.  It is important to be specific about the behavioral changes that must be made.  Identify the timeline for these changes.  Put this in writing and have them sign the document indicating they are aware of the required changes.

Monitor the Plan.  It is very important to monitor the plan you have put in place.  For example, if you have an employee that is constantly coming to work late, and your goal is for them to be on time, you must monitor their timeliness daily.  Be in their workspace at the starting time and let them know, by your presence, that you are invested in making this plan work.  If they are on time, recognize this with praise.  If they are late, you must address this on the spot. After a week or so of appropriate behavior, you can start monitoring less frequently.  If the behavior change has been hardwired, great.  You can continue to reduce the time spent monitoring.  If the poor behavior returns, step up your monitoring.  One of my favorite quotes is “inspect what you expect.”  This is a must when it comes to changing employee behavior. 

Make a judgement call. As a leader it rests on your shoulders to make the final judgement call when it comes to how to handle a challenging employee.  Putting time and energy into dealing with a challenging employee today will yield a loyal employee for years to come,   

Your staff and the health of your department/organization is relying on you to create the best work environment possible.

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