Managing Difficult Employees

Posted in : HR Updates on 6 October 2016
Olga Pollock
firmus energy
Issues covered:

There is no easy answer on how to manage a difficult employee. It depends on so many factors. It depends on what we mean by 'difficult' as a starting point and then who is being difficult; is it a manager, senior manager or employee? It depends on the culture of the organisation and whether unacceptable behaviour is the norm or whether there is a zero tolerance approach. I suspect in most organisations it is somewhere in-between. It also, of course, depends on whether the behaviour is a one-off or an ongoing problem and whether or not the individual concerned is under a lot of pressure or perhaps their behaviour is just part of their personality. Our approach as HR practitioners will, therefore, be different for each scenario.

What we mean by 'difficult'

One thing that we will likely agree on is that unacceptable behaviour cannot be tolerated. Bullies tend to know how to 'play' senior management but when they're out of the spotlight are snappy, rude and have unacceptable demands of their staff. If his or her reports haven't already complained about their aggressive line manager, then they will certainly not be happy and more than likely looking on on a regular basis. It may seem obvious, but clear policies should be in place to tackle such behaviour such as your dignity at work policy or separate grievance, harassment and bullying policies. These should be fully distributed among the workforce with training provided to relevant staff. Bullies, no matter how great they at winning deals or leading operations have no place in your organisation and we should question our promotion or recruitment decisions.

Very often over the course of my working life, there are those characters that aren't quite as obvious as the 'office bully' but who display a range of awkward or ‘difficult’ traits.

So there's the moaner who is just a generally all round negative type, generally set in his or her ways and is reluctant to change. In today's competitive, fast-changing environment, this type of employee will hold your business back. It is necessary to address this behaviour and highlight that it is unacceptable. It is always good to offset this constructive feedback with some positive comments around what the employee is good at and about how the change is necessary and will lead to great things but that this needs everyone’s buy-in.

You may also have employees that worry about everything and panic at anything they are asked to do that is new or challenging. Of course, we need to differentiate between someone who is genuinely suffering from work overload and be mindful of our duty of care meanwhile offering support to those that fret more than others. Regular communication with staff should be a normal part of a line manager's role and so sitting down with team members individually on a regular basis with a cup of coffee is a good opportunity to iron out any concerns and put in place support mechanisms when needed. 

In the past, I have had experience of the serial 'liar'. It's one thing when you notice ‘elaborations of the truth’, but quite another when these are serious lies such as fabricated sales figures or misuse of a company credit card. Even if deemed trivial, suspected lying should be investigated as it may turn into something serious that warrants disciplinary action.

There are also often those staff who are disengaged and enjoy hours surfing on the Daily Mail or worse still, sexually inappropriate sites; those in the latter is less likely to be for extended periods of time in the workplace. On both accounts it is necessary to have a robust network access policy in place with clear guidance on acceptable usage and whether or not there is any monitoring in place. The conversation with the disengaged employee should be an opportunity to find out why and what they need to make their job more motivating. If there has been an impact on productivity, this should be addressed early in the conversation. For unacceptable internet usage, such as access to adult content, this is a clear misconduct issue assuming staff are aware of the policy and training has been conducted.

Finally, one of the most difficult issues to address is around poor hygiene. Sometimes there may be a genuine medical problem and this needs to be established. It is often that others will approach their line manager or HR to complain that they cannot work with this person or the complaint may come from a customer. This is very often the one that line managers want to run a mile from but it cannot be ignored particularly where it is impacting on the customer relationship. A quiet word is a good starting point. No faffing around with small talk; just get right to the point in a sensitive way. Explain that there has been a problem reported and that you have a duty to address it. Ask if they have a medical condition and potentially offer an occupational health assessment if they are unsure. Keep the meeting short. There is no point in dragging things out and reassure them that the matter will remain highly confidential.

The culture of the organisation

Having a set of company 'values' can very often set the tone for the culture of an organisation. This should be a collective exercise inviting staff to focus groups and brainstorming ideas for what everyone believes to be the values or behaviours that reflect your organisation. If these are enforced top-down there will never be buy-in. Hopefully, by the end of the process, there will be a consensus on values such as dignity, respect, trust and honesty. Who isn't going to want to work in a company where they aren't treated this way? Once agreed, promote them as widely as possible. Typically, around 5 or 6 values is enough. Post them on your intranet, showcase them on your TV monitors, particularly in Reception; paint them on the walls. I recently walked up the stairs in an office with them written individually on each step! A very powerful way to reinforce their meaning and importance. Once they are rolled out then incorporate them into your performance management and recruitment and selection processes and ensure that you have a way of measuring adherence to these values both during employment and upon appointment. Then discussions around any deviations from these will be easier rather than some arguably subjective judgement on lacking respect or being dishonest.

To sum matters up you may want to take a look at this great ACAS video on how not to have a difficult conversation:! A difficult scenario to watch but probably because it's only too close to home. Be sure to read their guidance afterwards on how to do it right. Poor Carol!

This article is correct at 06/10/2016

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Olga Pollock
firmus energy

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