Organizational Wellness

How to Manage Difficult Employees and Get Your Team Back on Track

Aug 21, 2023
Last Updated May 9, 2024

A healthy and harmonious company culture starts with great leaders who support and enforce meaningful work policies. But culture can’t be a top-down mandate. Every organization’s culture is impacted by the entire workforce. Every employee contributes to the culture for better or for worse. Difficult employees reduce your team's morale and destroy productivity, so when you have a not-so-cooperative employee, it can take a toll on your well-designed work environment. 

Managing difficult employees may pose some challenges, but your workforce is made up of people with real strengths and real weaknesses that shouldn’t be dismissed. Building employee relationships is a critical part of creating a strong company culture (which can, in turn, improve company revenue by as much as 400%), so you don’t want to neglect to make connections or avoid working through conflict.

You may be thinking: easier said than done! But the people you hire and the culture you want to cultivate are worth the discomfort it takes to effectively resolve issues as they arise.


What Does a Difficult Employee Look Like?

When we talk about a “difficult employee” this isn’t necessarily someone you just don’t get along with. More than anything, a difficult employee is someone who is disengaged with their work or displays disrespectful behaviors towards their leaders or peers. This can cause major conflict on your team and create a toxic work environment, along with other negative impacts. A troublesome employee may look like someone who:

  • Doesn’t fulfill their responsibilities
  • Has a bad attitude
  • Undermines the leader's authority
  • Wastes time or doesn’t show up (or shows other signs of absenteeism)
  • Lack of motivation or low performance
  • Is not teachable and cannot handle criticism

Tips for Managing Difficult Employees

There is no cut-and-dry strategy that is guaranteed to fix the core issues an employee is having, but these tips are a great place to start. Depending on the personalities at play and the main conflicts at hand, try using some of these strategies to defuse the situation, pull the best from difficult employees, and ultimately find the right solution for your team.

Critique Behavior, Not People

It’s important for managers to focus on measurable activity and behaviors while avoiding personal critiques. Avoid making it personal or judgemental comments—that’s not constructive feedback. Instead, be honest about specific damaging behaviors and how they negatively impact the work environment and their job performance.

This makes it much easier to find a way to stop your colleague’s unacceptable actions and help correct behaviors. Help them understand the problem and give them specific examples of their negative behavior. Some employees may not realize what they are doing, have no intention of causing problems, or are going through some personal struggles that are affecting their work. By focusing on behaviors over people, it’s easier to solve the issue as a team: it’s the manager and the employee against the problem.

Document the Problematic Behavior

Any time you witness an employee’s inappropriate behavior or poor performance, make a note to build an evidence-based portfolio. Then, when it comes time to offer feedback or have a more formal conversation, you have dated and real-life examples to discuss.

By having specific instances to refer to, you not only show the employee that there are problematic patterns of behavior, but it’s also easier to find specific improvements that directly correlate with their indisputable actions. This also makes it easier for you as a manager to bring up difficult topics with an employee. 

Be Open to Feedback

Did you know that only one in four employees strongly believe that their current employers care about their wellbeing? If you really want a positive culture for employees, those employees need to know that their direct supervisors and other leaders in the company care about the needs of their employees, which starts with open communication. 

Create a safe space when you have difficult discussions with your employees, even when it’s the employee who is conducting themselves poorly. Instead of only criticizing and demanding change while you assume that you understand the situation better than anyone, be an active listener and try to understand the employee’s perspective too. Do they need more support? More motivation? Are they undermining you because of a previous conflict you’ve had?

Being open to what the employee has to say not only shows that you actually care about the person behind the behavior, but that you also care about getting to the root of the issue, not just doling out punishment.

Write Down Expectations and Specific Consequences

When it comes to improvement, there need to be measurable benchmarks the employee can understand and meet. Document any expectations and behavioral changes together so employees without a doubt understand what they need to do to succeed and protect their job. 

Once you set clear objectives and goals for them and involve them in the discussion, make sure you are just as clear about the consequences. Document the consequences of failing to add a little incentive and solidify the repercussions, should they fail to make the necessary behavior changes.

Monitor Progress

As a manager, it’s on you to keep track of how an employee improves (or fails to improve) after having a discussion with them. Are they meeting their goals? Have you seen where they are making efforts? Just like you document problematic behaviors, document either continued negative behavior or the changes they implemented.

Aside from your own observations, you can also try getting feedback from other coworkers. It’s also wise to have regular one-on-one meetings to check in with the employee to follow up on milestones and reinforce expectations. Evaluate the quality of their work honestly and take it from there.

Recognize the Fact that Some People Won’t Change

There may be times when dismissal is the best choice for the company. If you have gone through the strategies above and find that an employee continues with their destructive behaviors, it may be time to consider dismissal.

It can be painful to let somebody go and, of course, it should not be done lightly. Still, if someone isn’t a right fit and is causing issues not only for their manager but for the functioning of the team, it isn’t fair to keep them on. 

Plus, it’s estimated that bad (meaning disengaged, unproductively, or unskilled) employees cost their organization at least 30% of their first-year expected earnings. So not only is it unfair to all involved, but it’s also dangerous for your business. Finding a better hire for the position is sometimes the only solution to protect your people, your company culture, and your business.

Reinforce Your Healthy Company Culture with Wellhub

We’re all human and most of us could use some improvement in one way or another. For those employees who are disturbing the productivity of your business, it’s important to jump on the behaviors sooner rather than later to prevent escalation and minimize negative impacts.

With that said, sometimes issues are a sign an employee's struggling. It’s hard to perform when you’re not doing well, mentally or physically. In these cases, compassion can be more effective than correction. 

Wellbeing programs have been shown to improve employee productivity, decrease absenteeism, and increase employee satisfaction. Wellhub’s flexible subscription platform gives employees access to thousands of wellness providers to support their holistic wellbeing. 

Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist today to learn how we can help you take care of your employees!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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