Managing Difficult Employees: 5 Tips to Improve a Toxic Workplace

Difficult employees come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of difficulty. They range from mildly annoying to vindictive, with some employees chronically showing up for work ten minutes late, and others actively working to have you fired.

Workplace behavior may vary from one difficult employee to the next, but they share many of the same tendencies. They may be manipulative, chronically dissatisfied, or passive-aggressive. Instead of taking responsibility for their behavior, they blame everyone around them — including you — for their problems. Their negative behavior often spills over into the general work environment, causing disruption among other, better-performing employees.

What Difficult Employees Have in Common

• Difficult people create problems with you and your employees. Their behavior is divisive and disruptive. They deliver further negativity by seeking allies, which lead to factions and a divided workplace.

• Difficult people know how to get attention. They value negative attention as much as praise, and have likely already been deemed “difficult” by other managers.

• Difficult people may cultivate powerful friends in the company and use these allies to go over your head. Effective at building close relationships with upper management and human resources, they manipulate their “friends” in a positive, self-promoting manner.

5 Tips for Handling Difficult People

When a difficult employee acts out, the typical manager’s first instinct is to fix the problem — but the difficult person’s goal is never to have the problem they’ve created solved. The situation inevitably intensifies, and, worried about how upper management will view the conflict, managers respond by walking on eggshells. This builds a dysfunctional environment, resulting in an easy victory for the difficult person. The manager’s job is to handle the situation and fire the difficult person. Detailed below are five tips for accomplishing this:

1. Your job description does not include rehabilitating difficult people. You are not a personal life coach. Not only is energy expended on a difficult employee misused, that individual may actually use your efforts against you.

2. By focusing on a problematic person, you fail to give other employees the attention they deserve. As a result, they will resent both you and the difficult person.

3. Don’t attempt to keep the peace. As the manager, you set the tone; if you walk on eggshells, other employees will as well. Don’t allow the negative person to cultivate a toxic and dysfunctional work environment. Handle the situation and fire the troublemaker.

4. Be fair across the board and maintain open lines of communication. Clarify the rules in a group setting and make it clear that the same rules apply to everyone.

5. Keep a list of problems, incidents, dates, and your discussions with the difficult person. Be clear that your conversations are on record. Alert your boss and hum


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