How To Deal With A Difficult Employee

Deal With A Difficult Employee

One of the least favorite aspects of a leader’s job is when they have to deal with a difficult employee. It’s not fun to confront people who are misbehaving or deliberately avoiding their job. Difficult employees make things difficult for the entire team, whether it’s a passive-aggressive colleague, a narcissistic coworker, or an unresponsive direct report. But despite their prevalence, many leaders seem to be unwilling or unable to deal with them effectively. And that hurts everyone.

Dealing with difficult employees is unavoidable. But the good news is that taking the time to deal with a difficult employee can have a dramatically positive effect on the team. According to Harvard Business School professors Michael Housman and Dylan Minor, the productivity boost gained from removing toxic employees is greater than any boost gained from adding a star performer.

In this article, we’ll lay out a five-step process to help deal with a difficult employee.

Identify The Problem

The first step to deal with a difficult employee is to identify the problem. It needs to be named specifically otherwise it runs the risk of being ignored or tolerated. Not only does this help the person improve, but it also lets the rest of the team know you’re working on it. Identifying the problem doesn’t mean labelling the person difficult, it means identify the behaviors they’re demonstrating that are a problem. Generally, problem behaviors come in one of three categories: the employee doesn’t fulfill their responsibilities, they have a bad attitude, or they undermine your authority (or the effectiveness of their teammates). So, label the behaviors that need to be changed and be ready to explain how they are a problem for one of those three reasons.

Examine It Closer

The second step to deal with a difficult employee is to examine it closer. Before you move into a feedback conversation with them, you’ll want to make sure you understand all aspects of the situation. Sometimes the root cause of their poor behavior lies outside of their control, like a department not giving them enough support on a project or a problem in their personal life that is spilling over. And sometimes, they’re not even aware of how their actions are being perceived by others. It may or may not change the feedback you give them, but you’ll want to be aware of the entire situation before going into the conversation.

Give Direct Feedback

The third step to deal with a difficult employee is to give direct feedback. This is often the step many leaders jump to right away but taking the time to identify the problem and examine it closer makes this conversation much more effective. The goal of giving direct feedback is to provide a clear understanding of what behaviors need to change, without triggering the person to feel misunderstood or attacked. If possible, use specific examples you observed and offer better actions the person could have taken in that specific past situation. If you can’t use specific examples, it may be a sign you still need to examine closer.

Explain The Consequences

The fourth step to deal with a difficult employee is to explain the consequences. If you need to motivate someone to change behavior, it’s often not enough to just label the behavior and offer suggestions on how to behave better next time. They need to understand why they need to change—and the best way to do that is to get them to understand the consequences of their actions. There are two sets of consequences to lay out here. The first is a bit more obvious, and that is the consequences to their performance appraisal, their job, or their career if they don’t change. Those are the personal consequences. But the second is the team consequences, and these are often unseen. Explain the consequences of their behavior on the team. Often when people think their behavior will negatively affect them, they change merely enough to avoid getting in trouble again. But if they understand how their behavior is affecting others, they may be more motivated to make lasting change.

Document Everything

The final step to deal with a difficult employee is to document everything. And everything means everything. In fact, this step is really more of a continuous step done alongside the other four. Because as you’re examining the problem closer, you’ll want to document what you’ve found. And you’ll obviously want to document that you gave them direct feedback and what was decided afterwards. Documentation serves the cause of improving employees in two ways. First, it serves as proof of progress that people are actually getting better. But second, if they’re not getting better and don’t want to get better, it serves as proof you tried before you let them go (or refer them to be let go).


While these five steps may make the process easier, dealing with difficult employees is hard. It’s difficult and its’s draining. So, remember to give yourself some grace as well. No one handles it perfectly, and good leaders likely don’t want to become good at this part of their job. But it can’t be ignored. If it is, it will fester and infect the team. But if it is dealt with, it’ll improve the morale and performance of the team. It will help that difficult employee and the whole team do their best work ever.





About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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