Every company or organization has one: a difficult employee who rubs colleagues the wrong way. At the same time, these individuals may be very good at their jobs, and strong contributors to the bottom line. And while their behavior falls short of harassment or discrimination, it nevertheless takes a toll.
Managing a difficult employee is one of the biggest challenges a supervisor can face. These individuals are not violating company policy or breaking the law, but their demeanor, attitude, and behavior are off-putting to others. An example of this might be a high-performing salesperson who is excellent when facing clients, but unpleasant when dealing with co-workers.
A manager might be tempted to minimize this type of situation and hope it improves on its own. But inaction is a recipe for trouble. Left unaddressed, a difficult employee has the potential to do serious harm to overall workplace morale and productivity, and can even drive other valuable employees away from the department or company. Let’s take a look at how to address these circumstances before the damage is done.
First, you must be responsive to the issues and complaints of the offending employee’s colleagues. Don’t brush them off. Document the complaints in detail, and ask for specific examples of the behavior in question. Maintain confidentiality to the greatest extent possible, and discourage the office rumor mill, which can only worsen the situation.
Next, address the employee in question. This is understandably uncomfortable, but it must be done. Ideally, you will speak with the employee immediately following an incident, so that the event is fresh in his or her mind. Be specific about the behavior. For example, instead of saying, “You’re impatient with John,” say, “You stood over John’s desk snapping your fingers to get him to finish the sales report.” Always keep in mind that you’re addressing the behavior, not the underlying character of the person.
From there, you can follow an established protocol of steps based on a progressive discipline policy. Start with a conversation, or counseling session. If the behaviors persist, move to a verbal and then a written warning. At each step, ask the employee if he or she understands the effect of the behavior, and spell out the consequences. For example, “This is a verbal warning that you should not stand over John’s desk demanding he produce a report. It’s rude and disrespectful. If the behavior continues, I’ll have to issue a written warning. Do you understand that?” Document each of these conversations and include your notes and copies of any written warnings in the employee’s personnel file.The hope is that the employee will amend his or her behavior long before you need to issue a written warning. If however, you’ve reached that point, it may be time to escalate the situation and implement an official performance improvement plan. At this point, you will want to work closely with your HR department to set specific goals and timeframes for measuring progress, as well as consequences for failing to meet the goals. You’ll also need to meet regularly with the employee to review and assess.
Finally, if all these efforts fail, you may be forced to consider reassignment or termination of the employee. However, absent special circumstances, this should generally be the last resort and done only after all other avenues have been exhausted. The goal of your efforts is not to dismiss the employee, but instead to foster an environment of consideration, politeness and civility in the workplace.
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