Difficult people present no problem if we pass them on the street, in the supermarket or in a building lobby. Nevertheless, when we have to work with them difficult people can become major irritants.
It seems that some people are just born to be difficult. We have all worked with them and most of us dislike them. Difficult people are easy to recognize--they show up late, leave early, don't turn their work in on time and have an excuse for every failing.
Wait, there's more. These difficult people harass you and others, ask too many self-explanatory questions, neglect details, distract you and repeatedly challenge you and others. Even worse, when they interact with customers, vendors and people lower than them on the corporate hierarchy, they can be grouchy, impolite, condescending, uninformed, misleading, inappropriate or simply wrong. Do you know anyone like this?
Naturally, no one wants to work with difficult people. When dealing with problematic employees, productivity decreases, frustrations rise, morale goes down and customers and vendors get upset.
How to Handle Them
1. Don't ignore the problem. Assuming that the employee provides value to the company and possesses redeeming qualities, there are ways to deal with difficult employees. Most often, managers will simply ignore problematic staffers. Managers who live by this rule hope the problem will just go away; that these people will somehow turn themselves around or stop being troublesome. Ignoring the situation is the wrong solution to what could likely become a progressive problem.
2. Intervene as soon as possible. It is important to take action as soon as the negative behavior pattern becomes evident--when left untouched, this problem will only escalate.
Occasionally, the difficult employee has no idea that his behavior is a problem or that others react negatively to his actions. This is because most people tend to put up with the annoying behavior and "go along to get along." At the same time, some employees just consider it a "job frustration." Just like some managers, employees want to be liked by colleagues and subordinates and are therefore reluctant to speak up when a problem arises.
Ultimately, it is the manager's responsibility to take the appropriate action to correct the problem. Whether the concern exists due to the employee's lack of knowledge of the issue, lack of feedback or projecting the difficulty onto someone else, the manager has the responsibility of addressing and turning around the predicament. The manager needs to gather information from employees to discern the extent of the problem and personally observe the employee interacting with customers or vendors.
3. Research the problem personally. Armed with accurate data and examples, the manager needs to then take this person into a conference room or office--away from others--and calmly address the issue. To begin, the manager needs to ask the employee if he is aware of any ongoing issues to determine if the difficult person is aware of the problems.
If the employee is "unaware," the manager needs to describe the unacceptable behavior. The employee might interrupt to disagree or deny the existence of any issues. Nevertheless, the manager needs to continue by giving clear examples of the unwanted behavior.
The manager also needs to allow the employee to respond to the allegations. If the difficult employee refuses to believe that the allegations exist despite the evidence, the most the manager can hope for is an intellectual acceptance of the possibility that a problem exists.
4. Help the problematic employee to get back on track. Once the employee begins to understand that these negative behaviors are real and experienced by others in the organization, the manager or someone from human resources should begin to coach the difficult employee in displaying more acceptable and appropriate behaviors. The employee needs time and practice in "trying on" new, more suitable behaviors. HR and/or the manager need to provide specific feedback to this employee on the success or failure of his efforts in minimizing the negative actions and implementing ones that are more positive.
5. If all else fails, termination may be necessary. If the employee continues to deny his inappropriate behavior and refuses to try to improve the situation, the manager needs to place this person on the fast track towards termination. Often this involves recording a series of well-documented verbal and then written feedback about the behavior. Strictly following company protocol, there should be a period for the employee to address the questionable behavior. If this trial period does not result in improved behavior, then the employee needs to be terminated.
Most employees will recognize the negative behavior and will at least attempt to turn it around. This is especially true during tough economic times when unemployment is high and finding a new job is difficult. In any case, the manager needs to follow company guidelines in recognizing the unacceptable behavior, providing direct feedback, providing input to try to turn it around and ultimately taking action in a timely manner.
Not doing so is a disservice to the problematic employee, other employees and the success of the organization.
Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.