How to Manage Challenging Employees

Supervising other people is never easy, but some employees make it particularly difficult. These challenging employees can try your patience and drain a lot of your time and energy. To turn things around takes skillful management and patience.

So why not just fire these difficult employees? It seems like the logical answer. And sometimes it may be your only option. But more often, it’s a shortsighted approach. Why? For several important reasons:
  • Even the most difficult workers can often be turned around with some patience and the right approach. By firing, you could deprive yourself and the organization of someone with a lot of potential. And often, these difficult people are bright, talented, and capable.
  • You also have to consider the time and cost of recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement. In the long run, it’s usually more cost-effective to spend the time trying to turn a problem employee around.
  • There’s also the cost of unemployment compensation benefits to take into account—or worse, the cost of fighting a discrimination or wrongful termination lawsuit.
  • You must also consider that employees who appear to be difficult may simply have a personality conflict with their supervisor or with someone in their working environment. A simple reassignment may solve the problem.
  •  And ultimately, firing can upset other employees and affect morale, no matter who gets fired. If you had to discipline or fire a difficult employee, would you know the proper disciplinary and termination procedures?
That first step is putting your own feelings and actions under the microscope.
  • Begin by honestly examining your feelings about a difficult employee.
    • Are you feeling angry at the employee?
    • Are you discouraged by the situation?
    • Would you like to get back at the employee for all the trouble he or she has caused you? It’s OK to be completely honest with yourself. Nobody else has to know. But you do need to understand your real feelings toward this employee so that you can control them. Otherwise, they may sneak out in ways you could regret.
  • You also have to assess the situation honestly. Decide if you might have played a role in creating the difficulty.
    • Have you been butting heads with this employee?
    • Or perhaps you’ve let the worker get away with unacceptable behavior just because it was the easy way out?
    • Have you ignored performance or other problems?
When dealing with a challenging employee, you also need to make sure that your judgments about this person are objective.
  • Are you evaluating this employee’s performance and behavior by truly objective standards or is there an element of subjectivity involved?
  • Could it be that your judgments about the worker have been clouded by the fact that you really don’t like the person or that he or she rubs you the wrong way?
  • And finally, you need to try to keep your emotions in check when dealing with difficult employees. No matter how frustrated you may feel—remember your position and your professional responsibilities. Before interacting with them, you may need to take a few deep breaths or remind yourself that you are responsible for managing all your employees—the easy ones and the hard ones.
The bottom line is that if you are able to manage your own behavior in a positive and professional way, you will have a much easier time managing a difficult employee’s behavior.