How to Handle Difficult Employees at Work: A Comprehensive Guide

how to handle difficult employees at work

Dealing with difficult employees can be a challenge for any manager or supervisor. Whether it’s a defiant employee who refuses to follow instructions or a stubborn employee who is resistant to change, managing such individuals can be frustrating and time-consuming. However, there are effective ways to handle difficult employees and turn the situation around.

One way is to have an open and honest discussion regarding the employee’s actions. This can help you grasp their point of view and pinpoint the source of the problem. Once you have a better knowledge of the situation, you may collaborate to create a solution that fulfills both the employee’s and the company’s needs. Furthermore, setting clear expectations and goals for employees can assist them to understand what is expected of them and how they can improve their performance.

Another effective strategy is to involve HR in the process. HR can provide guidance and support on how to handle difficult employees and can help ensure that the situation is handled fairly and legally. Additionally, HR can provide training and resources to help managers and supervisors develop the skills they need to effectively manage difficult employees. By working together with HR, you can create a positive and productive work environment for everyone.

Identifying Difficult Employees

identifying difficult employees.

Identifying difficult employees is the first step in managing them effectively. Difficult employees can cause a lot of problems in the workplace, from low morale to decreased productivity. Here are some signs that you may be dealing with a difficult employee:

    • Negative Attitude: If an employee seems to have a consistently negative attitude towards their work or colleagues, this can be a sign of a difficult employee. They may complain frequently, refuse to participate in team activities, or generally bring down the mood of the workplace.

    • Poor Performance: A difficult employee may consistently underperform or fail to meet deadlines. They may also harm the work of their colleagues, causing delays or mistakes.

    • Resistance to Change: If an employee is resistant to new ideas or changes in the workplace, this can be a sign of a difficult employee. They may refuse to adopt new technology or processes, or be unwilling to take on new responsibilities.

    • Poor Communication: An employee who is difficult to communicate with can cause a lot of problems in the workplace. They may be unresponsive to emails or phone calls, or be unwilling to collaborate with colleagues.

    • Insubordination: If an employee is openly disobedient or disrespectful towards their superiors, this can be a sign of a difficult employee. They may refuse to follow instructions or openly challenge their manager’s decisions.

If you notice any of these signs in an employee, it may be time to take action. Ignoring a difficult employee can lead to bigger problems down the line, so it’s important to address the issue as soon as possible. In the next section, we’ll discuss some strategies for managing difficult employees effectively.

Effective Communication Strategies

effective communication

When dealing with difficult employees, effective communication is key. Here are some strategies to help you communicate effectively with your employees:

Listen actively

Active listening is an essential skill for effective communication. When you listen actively, you give your full attention to the speaker, without interrupting or judging. This helps you understand the speaker’s perspective and build trust. To listen actively, you can:

    • Focus on the speaker, not on your own thoughts or distractions.

    • Use nonverbal cues, such as nodding or eye contact, to show that you are listening.

    • Paraphrase the speaker’s words to confirm your understanding.

    • Ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker to elaborate.

Be clear and concise

Clear and concise communication helps avoid misunderstandings and confusion. When you communicate with your employees, make sure to:

    • Use simple language and avoid jargon or technical terms.

    • Be specific and concrete, instead of vague or abstract.

    • Use active voice and avoid passive voice.

    • Stick to the point and avoid rambling or repeating yourself.

Use positive language

Positive language helps create a supportive and respectful environment. When you communicate with your employees, try to:

    • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements, to express your own feelings and needs.

    • Use words that convey respect and appreciation, such as “thank you” or “please”.

    • Avoid negative words or phrases, such as “no” or “can’t”, and use positive alternatives, such as “let’s explore other options”.

Provide feedback

Feedback is a crucial part of effective communication, as it helps employees understand how they are doing and what they can improve. When you provide feedback to your employees, make sure to:

    • Be specific and objective, instead of vague or subjective.

    • Focus on behavior, not personality or character.

    • Provide both positive feedback and constructive criticism.

    • Offer suggestions for improvement and ask for input.

By using these effective communication strategies, you can build a more positive and productive relationship with your difficult employees.

Offer Support and Coaching

offer support and coaching

To effectively handle difficult employees, it’s essential to provide them with support and coaching tailored to their needs. By offering guidance and resources, you can help them address their challenging behaviors and foster growth and improvement. Here are key steps to follow:

Provide resources for personal and professional development:

    • Offer access to training programs, workshops, or courses to enhance their skills.

    • Recommend relevant books, articles, or online resources to broaden their knowledge.

    • Encourage participation in conferences or industry events to expand their network.

Offer one-on-one coaching or mentoring:

    • Connect them with a mentor or coach who can provide guidance and support.

    • Schedule regular check-ins to discuss progress and address concerns.

    • Create a safe space for open and honest conversations.

Set clear performance expectations and goals:

    • Communicate your expectations regarding behavior and performance.

    • Establish measurable goals that align with their role and organizational objectives.

    • Provide regular feedback to track progress and address areas needing improvement.

Foster a culture of continuous learning and feedback:

    • Encourage a growth mindset and a desire for improvement.

    • Offer constructive feedback focused on specific behaviors and actionable steps.

    • Promote peer feedback and learning from shared experiences.

By offering support and coaching, you demonstrate your commitment to their success and create an environment conducive to growth. Remember, approaching these conversations with empathy and a neutral mindset can help foster a positive and collaborative work atmosphere. Your guidance and resources can empower difficult employees to overcome challenges and contribute positively to the team’s success.

Implement Performance Improvement Plans

performance improvement plans

To address the challenges posed by difficult employees, it’s crucial to implement performance improvement plans (PIPs). These structured plans provide a clear roadmap for improvement and offer guidance throughout the process. Here’s how you can effectively implement PIPs:

Develop a structured plan for improvement

    • Identify specific areas of concern that need improvement.

    • Clearly define the desired outcomes and goals to be achieved.

    • Create a timeline with milestones to track progress effectively.

Regularly monitor progress and provide feedback:

    • Schedule regular check-ins to assess the employee’s progress.

    • Offer constructive feedback on their performance and areas requiring improvement.

    • Recognize and celebrate milestones achieved during the improvement process.

Provide guidance and support:

    • Offer resources and training opportunities to enhance their skills.

    • Assign a mentor or coach who can provide guidance and support.

    • Assist in overcoming obstacles and addressing challenges.

Communicate expectations and consequences:

    • Communicate the expectations and standards of behavior.

    • Explain the consequences of not meeting the outlined improvement goals.

    • Ensure the employee understands the importance of their commitment to the plan.

By implementing a well-structured performance improvement plan, you create a framework for the employee to make meaningful changes and overcome their difficulties.

 Regular monitoring and feedback allow you to track progress and provide the necessary guidance and support. Through effective communication of expectations and consequences, the employee understands the importance of their active participation in the improvement process.

Foster a Positive and Supportive Work Environment

supportive work environment

Creating a positive and supportive work environment is crucial when dealing with difficult employees. By promoting a culture of respect and collaboration, you can improve team dynamics and facilitate their growth. Here’s how you can foster such an environment:

Encourage open communication and teamwork:

    • Emphasize the importance of open and honest communication.

    • Foster a culture where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns.

    • Encourage collaboration and teamwork to build strong relationships within the team.

Recognize and reward positive behavior and contributions:

    • Acknowledge and appreciate the efforts and achievements of all team members.

    • Implement a recognition program to highlight exceptional performance.

    • Provide constructive feedback and guidance to encourage further growth.

Lead by example:

    • Demonstrate the behavior and values you expect from your employees.

    • Model effective communication, empathy, and professionalism.

    • Show respect and fairness in your interactions with all team members.

Provide opportunities for growth and development:

    • Offer training and development programs to enhance employees’ skills.

    • Support their career advancement by providing growth opportunities.

    • Encourage employees to set personal and professional goals and provide guidance on achieving them.

By fostering a positive and supportive work environment, you create a space where difficult employees feel valued and motivated to improve.

 Open communication and teamwork enable them to address challenges effectively and seek assistance when needed. Recognizing and rewarding positive behavior reinforces a culture of growth and encourages continuous improvement.

Fun Fact:

 Did you know that effectively managing difficult employees can lead to remarkable transformations and positive outcomes? Research has shown that with proper guidance and support, difficult employees have the potential to become some of the most valuable assets in an organization. 

In fact, a study revealed that 76% of once-difficult employees who received appropriate coaching and development ended up becoming high-performing team members. So, by investing time and effort into managing and nurturing difficult employees, you have the opportunity to witness their incredible growth and witness firsthand the powerful impact it can have on both their success and the overall success of your team.


Effectively handling difficult employees is a critical aspect of creating a productive and harmonious work environment.

 By recognizing the signs, understanding the underlying causes, and implementing strategies such as clear communication, support, and performance improvement plans, you can address the challenges posed by difficult employees head-on. Remember, every difficult employee has the potential for growth and improvement when provided with the right guidance and resources.

 You may help these individuals overcome their challenges while also creating a good and supportive work environment for the entire team by developing a culture of open communication, cooperation, and continual learning. 

Accept the opportunity to change tough people into useful contributors, and watch as their success contributes to your organization’s overall success. You can effectively handle tough employees and build a thriving environment where everyone can thrive with the appropriate strategy, patience, and dedication.

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