How To Deal With Difficult Employees

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Understanding how to deal with challenging interpersonal situations at work provides you with the opportunity to create good outcomes from complex conversations. Navigating these situations requires a set of skills and lengthy preparation. From managing your own reaction to remaining calm, the key to these conversations is understanding that you can only control your own reaction. In this article, we discuss 10 tips on how to deal with challenging employees and why this might occur in the first place.

10 tips on how to deal with difficult employees

Here are some tips for how to deal with difficult employees at work:

1. Consider your own reaction

Before anything else, perform a self-audit to identify how you're feeling in response to difficult employees. Identify your emotions in response to the difficult employee and consider how you want to respond. Remember that the best way to navigate these situations is to consciously respond to difficult employees rather than react on impulse.

Example: "When Angela speaks this way, I feel self-conscious and react accordingly. Instead, I should tell Angela how her words make me feel."

Related: How to Deal With a Difficult Customer

2. Remain calm

Next, remember to stay calm while navigating these situations. It takes strength to navigate recurring discussions with difficult employees, which is why it's important to stay calm. When you respond with anger, it's more difficult to find solutions that accommodate both you and the other employee. When you find yourself getting to distracted or emotional in response to difficult employees, remove yourself from the situation.

Example: "When Hannah talks over and interrupts me, I become frustrated. I know I can't solve the situation when I'm this irritated, so I must remove myself from the conversation to get control over my emotions. Afterwards, I can participate in a healthy conversation with Hannah."

3. Discuss the situation with friends

Before reacting to difficult employees, consider discussing the situation with someone outside the organization. This provides you with a clearer image of the situation and an outside perspective into how you contribute to difficult conversations. Explain the action that's distressing you and how you respond to it. From here, your friend can provide you with additional guidance to help you navigate the situation.

Example: "My coworker has been incredibly pessimistic recently, and it's becoming harder to deal with. We were recently given a new assignment, and they complained about it the whole time. The rest of us were excited to know that our supervisor trusts us enough to assign us something so big. Anyway, I feel kind of ridiculous for getting excited about the project now. What do you think I should do?"

4. Avoid the situation

Depending on how comfortable you are with your coworker or employee, consider avoiding them altogether. You don't need to participate in conversations that unnerve you and make you uncomfortable. This is a good option when you know conversations typically end in conflict.

Example: "My conversations with Magalie often end in conflict, and it makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sitting with her at lunch like I usually do, I'm going to eat with Naomi instead."

Related: 8 Steps for Conflict Resolution at Work

5. Talk to the employee

If you don't want to avoid the employee or want to settle the conflict yourself, consider discussing the situation with the employee in question. While speaking to the employee, keep an open mind and try to find a solution that works for both of you. Make sure to move your conversation into a private area to avoid anyone overhearing and to avoid embarrassment.

Example*: "Kasey is consistently late for work meetings, which causes the rest of us to delay them. We then can't complete our projects on time. I'm the team leader of the project, which is why I need to discuss the situation with Kasey. This will allow us to meet our deadlines and promote a healthier work culture."*

6. Show empathy

When conversing with the employee, show empathy. Remember that people aren't always aware when they're being difficult or that they're causing discomfort. Don't judge the employee for being difficult and express your feelings using "I" statements.

Example: "Rick, I love hearing about your weekends and what you do in your free time. That being said, do you think you could tell me more about it on our lunch breaks instead of during work meetings? Because of how interesting your stories are, I become quite distracted and have a hard time focusing on work."

7. Try to compromise

Remember to find ways to compromise with the employee you're having difficulties with. Before initiating a conversation, ask yourself how you can work toward a solution and what you're willing to do to end things on good terms. Both you and your coworker are on the same team, so finding common ground and collaborating benefits the company as a whole.

Example*: "I've been looking through our reports and discovered I've done the last six. I was wondering if there's a better way for us to delegate and share our reports. I know you're a hard worker, and you have a lot of skills, so I was thinking that was could delegate tasks that accommodate both of our skills."*

Related: Collaboration Skills: Definition and Examples

8. Remain respectful

Keep in mind that you need to work with the employee in the future, so remaining respectful during conversation allows you to maintain a good company culture. No matter what the employee's reaction is to the situation, continue treating them with respect. If you notice that they're not respecting you, remove yourself from the conversation.

Example: "Hi, Olivia. I was just coming to let you know that I've been finding the music you play at your desk quite disruptive. I still want you to be able to enjoy your music, so would it be possible for you to wear earphones in the future?"

9. Ask the right questions

Before you speak to your employee or colleague, consider what you plan to ask them. Consider what you want the outcome of the conversation to be. This prepares you should the employee become uncomfortable with the conversation because you can steer it in another direction and suggest ways for them to improve themselves.

Example*:* "I've noticed in the last few weeks that you're frequently late to our marketing meetings after lunch. Is there any way we can accommodate you to make your schedule work for your needs? I'd like to find a way to ensure you're both on time and able toenjoy your lunch."

10. Know when to contact your manager

If you've tried all other options, and you don't know how else to navigate situations with difficult employees, it may be time to contact your manager or supervisor. If the behaviour is truly disruptive and unmanageable, contact your immediate supervisor. Before doing this, consider preparing a plan for discussion to ensure all of your points will be heard and to ensure you have a clear idea of your goals.

Example: "Hi, Nancy. I'm sorry to bother you with this, but Henry hasn't been wearing the correct protective gear for the last three weeks. I tried speaking to him about it, but he wasn't receptive to my suggestions. I'm genuinely concerned about Henry's safety, as well as the safety of other staff members. Is there any way you can speak to Henry about this?"

Related: Top Management Skills Every Manager Needs

Why are some employees difficult?

Employees can be difficult for any number of reasons. While conflict may be one common interpersonal challenge at work, there are several other ways communication may lapse as well. Here is a list of those reasons:

  • Differing opinions: Employees are frequently perceived as difficult when they have a difference of opinion with other employees or with customers. This primarily becomes a problem when the two people involved in a discussion can't come to an understanding or compromise.

  • Oversharing: Employees who overshare are also considered difficult. People who overshare enjoy talking both about their personal and professional lives, which prevents their coworkers from completing work as efficiently. This also prevents others from completing projects according to deadlines

  • Lack of accountability: Having a lack of accountability can make employees more difficult to work with. When this happens, coworkers and other employees are forced to take on additional responsibilities to complete projects before the deadline.

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