How to Manage Difficult Employees image

How to Manage Difficult Employees

Staff Squared date icon12th June 2017

Tag iconManaging staff

No recruitment strategy, however robust, is absolutely foolproof.

There is always a risk that a member of staff could become very difficult to manage.

Perhaps what seemed to be an impressive trait during the interview stage has proven to be negative as the months have gone by?

Maybe an experience in your employee’s personal life has changed their behaviour at work?

Alternatively, a series of small and relatively minor difficulties could be starting to mount and cause concern.

We’ve created this 5-step guide, with tips to help when you’re managing difficult employees in the workplace.

1. Begin with clear communication

Give your employee the benefit of the doubt. They may not realise that they’re causing difficulties.

It’s also possible that they know things aren’t going well, but they’re struggling to improve the situation.

Be prepared to listen to their viewpoint. Take time to ask how they’re feeling and to find out what’s going on in their lives. Are they having trouble with tasks at work? Are there frictions between multiple employees? Is something outside the workplace having an impact on performance or behaviour?

Share the experience from your side, without being overly critical or placing the blame on your employee. It’s important that they know what difficulties you’re facing as their manager, but accusations will not go down well.

When communicating, it’s important that you’re clear about exactly where the problem lies. Is their performance below the required standard, or is there a specific behaviour that’s becoming a concern? Work with your employee to find ways to improve the situation.

When you listen to a difficult employee, you can often turn things around. Equally as important, you might discover legitimate complaints that you can act on for the good of your business.

2. Keep a record 

Written records benefit everyone.

If you need to take disciplinary action, it’s essential that you’ve got examples to back up your decision.

Write down any instances of difficult behaviour. Who was involved? What happened? What effect did it have?

You can use your written records if you need to take formal steps, but should also be able to refer to them when speaking with the staff member in question.

3. Always refer to your handbooks and policies

You should have handbooks and policies that detail your disciplinary routes, and your management of sick leave (in the event that an employee is taking too much time off work). Refer to these at every stage of the process.

Your documents make it clear what’s expected of an employee, and it’s essential that everyone has access to these at all times. Storing them within your online HR software is the most effective way to reach every person in the workplace, and to keep everything up to date.

If you’re taking disciplinary action, make sure that you follow the right steps. If an employee is absent too often, you can use your policies as a reminder of when their leave will be unpaid. You can also use HR software to monitor employee absences, for an at-a-glance view of how much time off they’re taking.

4. Know when and where to seek advice

 Managing difficult staff is a challenge. Their behaviour will almost certainly be having an impact on their colleagues, and on the business as a whole.

It’s unlikely that you’ve had specific training in this area.

Unless you’ve been through it before, you’ll probably not know how to deal with a difficult worker. What are you allowed to do, and what might cause more trouble?

Even if you’ve been managing difficult employees in the workplace before, these specific concerns might be different.

Acas provides excellent resources and tools that you can use, if you’re struggling with tough conversations. These include the ‘Challenging conversations and how to manage them’ guide. You can also call the Acas helpline (0300 123 1100) with any specific question.

Don’t be afraid to seek help and advice, whether that’s from another member of the management team or a neutral outside source.

5. Keep going

Approaching a difficult employee is a challenge in itself.

Don’t rest on your laurels when you’ve had your first tough conversation.

You can’t sit in your office, telling yourself that you’ve done well, whilst the behaviour continues in the next room.

It’s all too easy to speak to a member of staff, tell them that their behaviour isn’t acceptable and then forget to follow things up. That’s like being a parent, threatening “I’m going to count to 10…” and having no plan for what happens afterwards.

If you provide a warning, the behaviour continues and you don’t take further action, your initial conversation is wasted. You’ll probably need to start again, further down the line. Even worse, you send a message that you’re inconsistent and that your threats are meaningless.

After you’ve counted to 10, it’s vital that you make another move. Sit your employee on the ‘naughty step’ – figuratively speaking, of course.

When you first speak to your employee, keep things quite open and relaxed. Give them the time and space to approach you if they have something on their mind. Don’t threaten disciplinary action immediately, but be clear that their behaviour can’t continue as it is.

If things don’t change, begin more formal procedures. Consistency is essential. What message are you sending if you tell someone that they’re taking too much time off, but don’t act when they call in sick every fortnight for the  following few months?


A difficult employee is one that’s reducing productivity, may be having a negative impact on the business and could be upsetting other members of staff. The quicker you can solve the problem, the better your business will do.

If you let things slide for too long, you’re missing important opportunities. You’re wasting time, and probably money, that you simply can’t get back.

Other employees will be looking to you, to see how you manage the situation. Your action sends a message to every member of staff, and a lack of action sends a message that’s even more influential.

Written by Sherree Tibbs

Customer Care Team Manager - Staff Squared

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