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Tips & Tricks for Handling a Difficult Employee

Despite our best intentions in our hiring processes, we may encounter a difficult employee. This individual may present well at an interview, only to become toxic when they feel safe in their position. There are also instances where a previously good employee may become difficult due to challenges outside of work.

No matter the reason for a difficult employee, you must address the situation. Do not assume it is petty bickering or picky workers. The impacts of difficult employees affect your entire team. Eroded trust, lack of collaboration, reduced output, and bad decision-making are just a few effects. Here is how to recognize and address employee issues.


What Makes an Employee Difficult?

First, unless they do it in a toxic way, difficult employees are not those who express their opinions or call out issues in your office. If concerns like this arise, merely discuss the problem with your employee, and you will likely find good reasons for their statements. Your agency may improve from their feedback.

Difficult employees are a separate class of workers. Their main attributes include:

  • Consistently poor performance: Reduced job performance may be more than a lousy day or a temporary shortcoming. If it remains terrible, it will affect everyone. Team members may have to pick up the slack or correct the employee’s work. People become resentful and burned out and may take it out on coworkers.
  • Does not play well with others: These employees perform poorly, and worse yet, they do not care about the impacts on their coworkers. They may be dismissive or sarcastic about the lowered morale. Their toxic traits do not just play out on your other workers; they also lash out at clients and visiting colleagues.
  • Ignores coaching and feedback: When you try to encourage the employee or offer coaching to improve job performance, they tune you out. They promise to change and then never do so. Their coworkers may try to engage them and fail, leading to further frustration and reduced morale.
  • Resistance to change: Do not keep employees who resist or refuse change. They keep your agency from growing. You will notice this trait if the employee sabotages change or is extremely negative about it. They may respond to change with sarcasm and derogatory statements.
  • Never takes responsibility: All employees make mistakes. The important part is how they address them. A problematic employee blames everything but themselves. They’ll complain about their coworkers, your technology, the time of day, or even you. This trait is often difficult to train out of people, so you may need to consider dismissal.


How to Deal with Difficult Employees

Fortunately, if you have a difficult employee, not all is lost. While you may have to dismiss them eventually, you also want to avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit. These strategies cover your legal tracks and may even solve your employee problem.


Start with a Discussion

Schedule a private discussion with the employee. You may learn they are dealing with stress or disruptions in their home life. If that is the case, ask what you can do to help. Perhaps some time off or an adjusted work schedule will help them perform better and reduce their toxic tendencies.

You may also find the employee already knows they have bad habits. But they may not know how to solve the problem. A discussion helps find solutions that work for both of you.

However, if the employee pushes back or debates you, it is time for a different approach. Be prepared for this possibility as difficult people won’t address their own shortcomings. If this occurs, remind them that their bad behavior is not up for debate, and you need to discuss solutions. Depending on their attitude, you may need to turn the private discussion into a performance warning.


Form an Action Plan

If an employee pushes back, form an action plan to address performance and behavior issues. You and the employee should develop these solutions together.

For example, an employee may consistently make typos while drafting correspondence. The mistakes cause embarrassment, and other workers feel they must double-check the employee’s work. A suitable action plan may include installing a spellcheck tool like Grammarly or designating one employee as editor until performance improves.

Action plans also work for behavior issues. An employee facing adverse circumstances, like a divorce, can agree to counseling and time off to handle matters. If you have an employee who lashes out, anger management classes may be a good solution.

Once you form the action plan, follow up on it. If you do not notice improvement, take the employee aside and find out why. The employee may need to change the action plan or have no motivation to improve. Make notes of positive changes, too, so it doesn’t look like you’re out to get this particular employee. No matter the results you get from these follow-ups, document them.


Focus on Behavior, Not Character

Productively discuss issues. If you start out saying, “You are mean and sarcastic,” you will not make progress. However, if you start out with, “When you blurted out in a sarcastic tone, ‘What a great idea!’ and then laughed and rolled your eyes, you hurt your coworker’s feelings, and that is not OK,” they may listen.

You can determine their state of mind with the follow-up question, “What did you expect to accomplish with that reaction?” Your worker may have real communication problems, and you can offer ways to help them. However, if they admit they wished to cause psychological harm, do not accept anything less than an apology and promise to do better.


Make Constructive Feedback Public

Your other employees are watching you. They assess whether you will do something about the toxic employer or ignore it in bliss. If they think you’re doing the latter, morale will continue to drop. But if they believe you are addressing it, they will feel hopeful.

Keep in mind this is feedback–not reprimand. If you publicly discipline your worker, you will face more pushback. But if you leave feedback like, “Please don’t interrupt a coworker when she’s presenting,” it reminds your employee to behave better while also helping the coworker see you are looking out for her.


Document Discussions and Results

Document everything. Your memory will unlikely remain fresh when it is time to decide the toxic employee’s future with your insurance agency. Also, you need a record of behaviors, performance issues, and steps taken before you dismiss an employee.

You want to document an action plan and results. But also document meetings, reports from other employees, behavior changes (good and bad), and any new incidents. Do not forget to include your response to these developments too.


Avoiding Difficult Employees

You may not realistically avoid difficult employees, but you can lower their likelihood. The American Agents Alliance includes hiring and development services as one of our member benefits. Our partner, the Omnia Group, assesses your staff to find their preferences, motivators, and most vital personality traits. Their services make retaining staff, building better teams, and finding top producers, managers, and CSRs easier. Become a member of the American Agents Alliance today and start investing in your strongest asset–your employees!

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