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Handling difficult employees

Noone said dealing with human resources (HR) issues would be easy. Sometimes it seems like there is no end to the number of head-scratching scenarios just waiting to spring up on us! It can be hard to know where to start, especially when there are many sides to a complex situation.

In a workshop we held recently on “Handling difficult employees in the workplace,” one delegate remarked at the end: “When I came to this workshop I had in mind that I was going to learn how to deal with difficult employees, but alas, I have realised I could be as much a problem like anyone else.”

What a profound reflection this was.

Suck life and time

As managers and team leaders, daily you will be faced with innumerable ‘people’ problems. Some you will handle easily, others will challenge you.

The problem is that getting things wrong can have ramifications; it can make a situation worse and even lead to personal grievances.

Every workplace has difficult people. They never come to work on time, they invade your personal space, and they eat their favourite hot lunches at their desks. They never refill the coffee dispenser, they shout on the phone during personal calls, and they complain about every little organisational change.

Difficult employees provide an additional set of problems for any manager. Effective managers are able to find ways to motivate and work with challenging employees.

In most cases though, a few problem employees can require most of the manager’s time. It has been estimated that difficult employees make up only 10% of a department or team, but they occupy 90% of the manager’s time.
Four main problems

In this Installment, I identify four main problems managers experience with difficult employees:

  • Managing difficult personalities;
  • Managing employees with bad attitudes;
  • Managing poor performance; and
  • Managing communication problems.

It is important to remember that managers must understand their own management styles before they address issues with problem employees.

Management is a two-way street, and sometimes the problems in the workplace are nothing more than the result of a mismatched employee and manager. If you feel like more than 10% of your employees are difficult, then you and your management style may be the problem.

Psychometric assessments and 360-degree feedback can help identify any mismatched employees and the effects they are having on their co-workers. There are no simple solutions when managing difficult employees.
But it is important to identify problems quickly so that you can spend your time managing the entire staff, not just the high-maintenance employees.

Practical scenarios

Here is the story: “You have just taken over as the manager of a department consisting of 10 people. They do a variety of jobs, from administration duties to liaising with customers on progress in delivering printed publications. It is a very busy department with lots of activity, including phones ringing frequently and numerous visits from internal customers.

The department seemed to perform well under the old manager — at least the senior manager held him in high esteem. The output figures are good, but they do not meet your high expectations.

In your first week in the job you have noticed a number of things within the department:

  • A high-spirited atmosphere — lots of joviality, “mickey-taking” and fun. On one occasion, a funny cartoon went around the office on e-mail. Lots of laughs about that one! On another occasion, a team member’s “post it” notes were removed from her desk and hidden when her back was turned. She seemed to see the funny side of it;
  • Frequent “fag” breaks by a group of four-team members — on one occasion three in one hour;
  • The senior manager visited your department twice and said, in front of team members, how pleased he was with the performance of the department and it is positive attitude;
  • Three team members arriving back from lunch between five and 10 minutes over the allocated lunch duration;
  • Two instances where team members helped each other out when a deadline was approaching;
  • A reluctance to pick up other team member’s incoming phone calls when away from desk for very short periods, for example, at filing cabinet on other side of office; popped to vending machine; and
  • A team member “greeting” an Asian-looking employee entering the department with the words: “Wey-Hey, how you doin’ Paki?”.

The employee did not look too happy about it.

How are you going to deal with this situation?

Take time to manage

Dealing with difficult employees is inevitable. As a manager, there will always be employees or clients who are annoying, lazy, or just downright rude.

You have a choice to either work with them or let them go. Terminating the employment of difficult employees may help you in the short term, but it also increases hiring costs. And what if the employee is a high performer?

Although managing difficult employees takes time, it is still worth the effort in order to avoid additional hiring costs. Assessments also help managers deal with difficult employees.

Knowing how your employees respond in stressful situations or how they fit with certain management style arms you with valuable information that can help you manage problem employees.

Assessments provide a vast amount of information that you can use to make decisions concerning your employees. Difficult employees are always going to be in the workplace.

The way in which you manage these employees matters most.

Mandeya is an executive coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.

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