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Handling Difficult Employees  By Leon Noone

Difficult employees emerge in every business. They take your business focus from performance. They are unco-operative, argumentative, sullen, outspoken, unfriendly, disruptive. They make repeated errors or are just plain lazy. In a small-medium business they're a pain in the butt. But something keeps you from firing them. If you're not going to get rid of them, maybe you should try something different. Try handling difficult employee using these ideas. And remember, simple solutions often work better than more elaborate approaches.

1 Focus On Solutions

When managers discuss work with difficult employees they spend lots of time talking about "the problem". They explain the consequences and implications. They go on and on about the employee's mistakes and failings. This merely reinforces the importance of the problem in the employee's mind. What's most important is creating a performance based solution. It's hard to avoid talking about what's happening now. But what really matters is defining the performance you want in the future. You want to get the "difficult" employee from where they are now to where you want them to be. Emphasise the solution, not the problem. If training's needed ensure you do it well.

2 Clarify "Difficult"

It's common for an employee to have a reputation for being "difficult" merely because he or she isn't well liked. Before sorting out the "difficult" employee, make sure that their "difficulty" concerns poor performance, not personal likes and dislikes. A business full of "yes men" may run smoothly. But it's unlikely to be very effective.

3 Clarify Expectations

This applies to all employees. It's sometimes the key to fixing employee performance problems. Do you know precisely what results you expect from employees? If you don't, you'll have problems handling difficult employees. If you don't know the exact result you want, your employees won't know either. "Difficult" employees will use this as an excuse. When talking to "difficult" employees ask them to tell you what they believe you expect. You might find that simple clarification of your expectations will relieve the difficulty.

4 Review Your Systems

A very wise person once said "there are few poor employees: there are lots of lousy systems." Few things frustrate employees more than systems that fail to help them or even prevents them from doing what's expected of them. Before you start blaming employees for performance problems, seek their input on improving your systems. You may find that you no longer have problems.

5 You're Not A Counselling Service

Most small-medium business managers want to "look after" their staff. But resist the temptation to play personal counsellor to employees about personal issues. Avoid crusading to "help Mary fix her problem" or "get Bill back on track". If employees need professional guidance, arrange it for them. You wouldn't expect a psychologist to run your business effectively. You're paid to run your business, not play professional counsellor. Playing counsellor is part of your role. But it's only a bit part.

6 Change And Perspective

Sometimes a long-standing, reliable and conscientious employee becomes "difficult". This may be a result of problems in their personal life. If it isn't, it's likely to be associated with change. You may introduce a new computer system, change individual responsibilities, make unexpected promotions or transfers.
Remember, as manager, you have a unique perspective on your business. Your employees may see it differently. What's innovative and positive to you, may be threatening and negative to some of them. Before you implementing changes, explain them in depth to employees in their terms.

7 "Majoring In the Minors"

It's an old expression. It means over-emphasising trivial issues while under-emphasising important issues. The Human Resources Director of a European multinational company sought my advice about a problem with their top salesperson. His paperwork was often late and incomplete. But he'd beaten budget by an average of 33% for the past three years. Because of his poor paperwork, they were considering firing him.
Crazy? I'll say! That's "majoring in the minors" - emphasising minor issues at the expense of what really matters. I suggested they employ someone to do his paperwork. This would enable him to spend more time on the road with prospects and customers. He was clearly very effective in this role. He wasn't a "difficult" employee. If your so-called "difficult" employee is an outstanding performer find a way to eliminate the cause of the "difficulties". But maintain the performance.

8 Review Your Selection/Promotion System

Like it or not, your selection or promotion process created the problem of the "difficult" employee. I know that's a harsh fact to face. But your selection/promotion system said that this person would do a good job and fit well into your culture. You may not have been personally involved. But your selection system invited the now "difficult" employee into the company or promoted him into a more demanding role. Have a close look at your selection system. Is it rigorous enough to find the people you really need? Or does "gut feel" and personal preference dominate? Do the people involved in selection/promotion realize how costly it is. Do they know how expensive it becomes when they "get it wrong".

9 Likes And Dislikes

When someone has a reputation for being "difficult" you may not know what issue to address. In my experience, outstanding performers may not always be the most popular. They may not be the most admired. Is the so called "difficult" employee merely envied by his or her high performance? Put simply, it's very important to know who's saying someone's "difficult" and why. "Difficult" may merely reflect personal feelings.

10 Maintain Employee Self Esteem

Remember the purpose of discussing job problems with "difficult" employees. It's to get them to achieve better business results. It should not be to damage their self esteem. It's not to "bring them down a peg or two" or to "show them who's boss". One of the best questions you can ask a disgruntled employee is "What would you like me to do about it?" You might be surprised at the quality of the answers you get. Simple words are often more effective than complex discussions.


Managing "difficult" employees in small-medium business may be awkward. And it's another distraction for the manager. But it isn't impossible. Stay focussed on performance. Make sure they understand that your emphasis is on finding solutions not amplifying problems. Make it very clear that you're a business manager not a personal counsellor. Maintain employee self esteem. And accept that the real "difficulty" may be with your systems not your employees.

Leon Noone helps managers in small-medium business to improve on-job staff performance without training courses. Some say his ideas are too unconventional. Find out for yourself by reading his free Special Report "49 Practical Tips For Better People Management In Small-Medium Business". Simply visit go to and download your free copy now.

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