Dealing With Difficult Employees

Updated: May 11

In this article I'm going to walk you through the process I use with clients to effectively deal with difficult employees.


Let's start by clarifying what I mean by a 'difficult employee'.


This might be someone in on your team who ticks one (or several) of the following boxes:

  • Not completing work to a high enough standard

  • Completing work late or not at all

  • Displaying confrontational attitude towards the rest of the team (or customers)

  • Consistently making mistakes, or worse, consistently making the same mistakes

  • Unreasonable and unauthorised lateness or absence

  • Blames others and fails to take responsibility or use initiative in the workplace

  • Making derogatory remarks about you, your company or other teams members in and/or outside of the workplace

  • Inability or unwillingness to follow instructions

As you can see there are many ways in which a member of staff can manifest as being 'difficult' - and the scary thing is that as comprehensive as this list is, it's certainly not exhaustive.


Think about your team; which of these traits do you recognise? How much are you willing to tolerate before enough is enough and you feel compelled to act?


The first, and perhaps the hardest thing you need to do is to take personal responsibility for the situation.


As the business owner, you know where the buck stops - it's always you.


So you have to ask yourself some hard questions; did I make a bad choice in hiring this person in the first place? Were there warning signs I should have seen at the interview stage but missed?


It's important to identify these and learn the lessons so you can avoid making the same mistake again.


Now ask yourself; if I didn't make a bad hire (and we all do sometimes, it's an inevitable part of running a business and employing staff), what did I do (or what didn't I do that I should have) that led to this member of staff becoming dysfunctional?


What was the process that took a new employee with potential and turned them into the difficult employee that stands before you today?


While you take a few moments to consider those questions, let's look at why it's important to deal with difficult employees swiftly and concisely.


To illustrate this important point I'm going to use the analogy of the bad apple the rots the barrel. Simply, if insubordination, dissent and poor performance is left unchecked it will do two things; it will distract you and other members of your team from the important task of running your business and force you into a position where you spend more time fighting fires than you do making money.


As if that wasn't bad enough, the second thing that will happen is more insidious - the rest of the team will begin to resent you for allowing the situation to continue unchecked, and their collective performance, morale and belief in the business will suffer. If left unchecked for too long, those things will suffer irreparably to the point where either the business will fold or you'll find yourself needing to replace your entire team in order to repair the culture in your business.


I assure you, you don't want that - it's expensive, stressful, and unnecessary.


So, you must act. Now, and decisively.


And here's how...


The ideal outcome of any process that involves members of your staff is that you are able to support them to the point whereby their performance improves, morale increases, and they integrate into your team productively and synergistically.


Why? Because every person you employ has had significant amounts of time and money invested in them from the hiring process, to onboarding, training and development and oversight.


The worst possible outcome would be to have to remove them from your team and your business, because that represents money down the drain, and all that time, money and effort is lost, leaving you to start again from scratch... not ideal, I'm sure you agree.


That said, it is sometimes necessary to fire staff who either can't or won't perform to the required standards, and in those cases it's important to decide and act in the shortest time frame possible to minimise your loss, and help you move on to find the right person for the role.


So here's the process I use with Bulletproof clients:

  1. Define

  2. Evaluate

  3. Develop

  4. Assess

  5. Decide

  6. The 3 T's (Track/Transfer/Terminate)

This is a Bulletproof process for you to use with any member of your team in your business to deal with difficult employees effectively to achieve the best possible outcome for all parties, and ensure that you're primary objective is to find the problem in your business rather than the problem in the person.


If you simply eliminate problem employees from your team without finding the problem in your business that created them, the only thing your guaranteed is to keep having the same problems arise with members of staff.


Okay, let walk through the process in a bit more detail.


Step 1: Define


The first thing you need to do is make sure that you have clearly defined what success and failure looks like for the role the person you are assessing is occupying.


In other words, does the role have clear KPI's (key performance indicators) that are written down, specific and number based? Do they feed into the higher level KPI's that define success and failure for your business as a whole? Are they simple enough that the person occupying the role can easily understand what they are, how to achieve them, and what role they play in achieving the big picture for your business?


If the answer is 'no' to any of the above, your first port of call is to improve your KPI's.


Step 2: Evaluate


Now that you've checked your KPI's are in order, it's time to bring out your magnifying glass to inspect the persons performance in the role compared to those KPI's.


Chair a meeting with them to explain that you're working hard to develop their role in the business and fill any training gaps that might exist, and so will be more closely monitoring their activities over the next 4 weeks. Go through their KPI's with them in detail and make sure they understand each one by asking them to explain them back to you.


Ask them to send periodic reports to you (or their direct supervisor) detailing their performance against their roles KPI's, and set the period to whatever makes sense to your business (maximum I would recommend is daily, minimum would be weekly).


Ask them to include the things they think have gone well, and why hey went well, and the things that they have struggled with... and why they struggled with them. This data is crucial for step 3...


Step 3: Develop


Following the 4-week evaluation period, collate the data from their reports and look for patterns that tell you which areas are in need of attention and improvement.


Once you've identified which areas need attention, chair another meeting with your employee to discuss each point and get their feedback. When you have recorded their feedback on each point, work with them to develop a detailed plan of professional development for the following 4-weeks and explain clear how this is expected to affect their performance in their role.


This professional development plan might include out-of-house training from 3rd party providers, reading materials, revision of company policies and documents, in-house mentoring from you or their supervisor, or dummy practice tasks set for them to improve their skills where failures and mistakes won't negatively affect the business operations.


Once this professional development plan has been agreed, appoint an accountability partner (supervisor, colleague or you) to monitor and record progress and guide them through the 4-week period.


It's especially important to monitor their performance against their roles KPI's at a minimum of weekly intervals to see how the PDP is affecting their performance operationally. If results remain unchanged after 2 weeks, revisit your PDP and make the necessary changes to the plan to improve results.


Step 4: Assess


Following completion of the PDP, look at their performance metrics and assess the results. Did you see an improvement in their performance as measured by their KPI's? Where is their performance now compared to where you need it to be? Is there more work to do to get them on track? If so, what more could be done to improve their performance?


When you're assessing these results make sure you're using tangible metrics that are number based rather than subjective so it's clear where they are compared to where they need to be.


Step 5: Decide


It's crunch time.


You now have a decision to make, and you have one of 3 options...


Step 6: The 3 T's


Based on your assessment following completion of the PDP, you now need to decide how best to manage the future of your team member, and you need to pick one of the following 3 options:

  1. Track - If your employee has shown promising improvement as a result of completing their professional development programme, the next best course of action is to continue their training in key areas whilst actively tracking their performance to ensure they don't slip back into old ways

  2. Transfer - It may be that although they have completed their PDP and make a good effort throughout, they are still not performing as you need them to be in their current role. This may be because they are poorly suited to their current role and you should consider if there are other roles in the business that might be better suited to their skill set and character profile. Just because they aren't performing well in their current role doesn't necessarily mean they're a bad employee, and may turn out to be a real asset in a different role in your business, so moving them sideways might be the next smart move

  3. Terminate - The 3rd option is to follow due process and proceed in terminating their employment with your company. If they are far below where they should be with no sign of improvement, have repeatedly demonstrated a bad attitude towards the company and fellow team members, or don't have any potential to thrive in other roles within the business, it's likely time to move them along. Remember if it comes to it that this in your best interests and theirs, as moving them along will give them the opportunity to find alternative employment in a role or business that is better suited to their character, skill set and needs

There are 3 big advantages of following this process;

  1. More Profit - Your staff turnover will be lower because most people you take through this process will thrive as a result of doing so, and that means your business will be more profitable because you're spending less on recruitment AND all of your team are performing at their best

  2. Less Risk - You'll protect your business from claims and tribunals because you've focused on developing your staff first, and will have documented your efforts in detail meaning you'll have a solid paper trail to prove no wrong doing on your part - that means saving you a massive headache, time and money by preventing any employee disputes before they become an issue

  3. Self Termination - Team members who are not a good fit are more likely to leave your business of their own volition without you needing to terminate their employment as the process progresses. It's often the case that those on your team who don't want to pull their weight, who are hiding behind the work of others, or who's attitude just isn't a good fit will feel the walls closing in when you take this approach and when they feel they've got nowhere left to hide they will jump ship on their own, which saves you a job and removes a lot of the usual liabilities inherent with terminating staff

What are your experiences in dealing with challenging staff members? How did you resolve the situation?


Tell us about your experiences in the comments.


Are you dealing with challenging staff members right now? Follow this process and let us know how you get on. Do you want help and guidance going through this process? If you'd like us to work with you and your team to deal with a challenging team member then get in touch now and we'll be happy to help.


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