A difficult employee can drain the life out of the best of business managers and owners. Business is hard enough without having to deal with the extra headache of keeping high-maintenance employees afloat. Let’s start by discussing some of the characteristics of this type of employee. The person:

Emotionally drains you. A difficult employee tends to constantly cause drama by complaining, always asking to borrow money, questioning you, stirring up trouble in the organization, bringing never-ending family problems to work, etc. It’s amazing how often this equates to family and friends, and not setting good boundaries at home. Even the best employees struggle if surrounded by coworkers who suck the life out of them and make it difficult to function in a professional environment. Remember, as a manager, you didn’t cause this problem, and you can’t fix it. Feeling sorry for the individual and making concessions only allows it to get worse. Many people come from difficult personal backgrounds, but work is a place where they can move forward. Don’t let folks bring their personal problems into the workplace.

Violates policy. The employee tends to have endless attendance, on-time and other dependability issues. Only through a clear-cut policy can you manage this problem. Be consistent, and make it clear what that policy is. Something as simple as a first-time verbal warning, a second-time written warning and a third-time day off without pay can clean up these types of issues.

At times, shows brilliance. A difficult employee can still be a good technician and, at times, helpful. Frequently, your thoughts about the person begin with, “If only he or she would...” Difficult people are not necessarily incompetent or lazy, they are just difficult. This is one of the challenges. The more you can isolate them and keep them focused, the better they will usually perform. When it gets to the point where you can’t stand it anymore, you simply terminate with honor. Let the person go without a big lecture or a lot of drama. Let him or her be the next employer’s problem.

If you know the signs, why do you still sometimes keep difficult employees?

  • The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
  • You’re too busy to find a replacement.
  • The person’s technical expertise or experience is valued.
  • You are emotionally attached and have become vested in the person’s problems.
  • You are loyal by nature and allow that trait to be abused.
  • When not in direct contact with you, you forget how bad the person’s behavior actually is.

So, what are the best management practices for dealing with a difficult employee? If the person performs well but just tends to get on everyone’s nerves, isolate him or her. If necessary, have the person start at a different time. Tell the employee that he or she is wonderful and get as much mileage out of it as you can. But when it’s time, let the person go.

Enforce the rules and have a zero-tolerance approach. Protect difficult employees from themselves, and ensure the situation does not get worse. Maintaining a disciplined approach might allow you to save some of them. Being “Mr. Nice Guy” is only going to ensure their ultimate termination.

Document unacceptable behavior and give copies. Establish history by putting it in writing. Yes, this is the type of employee who will sue you.

Have the tough conversations, and let him or her know the behavior is not acceptable. Allowing the person’s behavior to continue over and over sets a pattern of acceptance. Make it clear that the person needs to get his or her act together and you will not allow this to continue.

Look for the person’s response, and make sure the employee owns his or her part of the deal when you have a conversation.

  • Does the person own his or her part? Believe it or not, some people do not understand or believe they have a problem. If the employee offers excuses, blames circumstances or others, he or she is not going to change.
  • Does the employee understand that if this continues, the person will ultimately lose his or her job? It can be amazing that an employee can complain about his or her job, not get along with the boss and ultimately think all is going to be OK. It’s also amazing that management hasn’t made it clear that if the behavior continues, the person will lose his or her job. Not getting along with the boss is a career path that ultimately leads to dismissal.
  • Before starting the conversation, make sure you have a clear understanding of what behavior you want. If by some miracle the person could change overnight, what would that behavior look like? During your conversation, make sure you reach an agreement as to what behavior you expect. There needs to be a clear understanding of the problem and an acknowledgement that he or she will do something differently.

 Termination is not such a bad thing. It allows you and the employee to start over. It’s much better than tolerating the behavior for years until the behavior is so engrained in the person he or she can’t change or is too old to easily find a job. Remember, the employees you terminate rarely keep you up at night.