Streetwise: How To Deal With Difficult Employees

October 3, 2020

From our friends at Eure Consulting:

Employees come in all shapes and sizes. They come from all backgrounds. They are unique individuals. They have different goals and wants for their lives and for their loved ones. Their experience levels, skills, and knowledge vary, sometimes greatly. They are motivated by differing things. For some its money, for some it is the things that money can buy, for others, it is simply to enjoy the moment. Some move at a rapid pace. Others don’t seem to move at all. Many follow the rules to the letter and others that don’t give a flip about dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.

Each employee has their strengths and each has their weaknesses. Some employees have more weaknesses than strengths, at least at this current moment. Those are the employees we would classify as difficult.

Just like each employee is unique, each employee can be difficult in a unique way.

Maybe it’s their poor or lackadaisical attitude. It could be their work product. Perhaps they are often late or call out sick. It might be how they interact with others or their tendency to be disrespectful.

There are many reasons that employees might be difficult, or perhaps become difficult over time. Whatever the cause, that is no excuse to allow them to continue to be a disruption and a negative influence in the workplace.

It is your responsibility as the leader of the organization to minimize the number of difficult employees in your company. If you want to have a highly successful organization, you have to ensure that you are constantly improving the performance of your employees or asking them to leave. We refer to this as moving employees up or out.

Being the CEO and/or owner of a business means you are in the people business.

It may not be what you signed up for, but it’s the truth. Whether you are directly responsible for solving all of your people problems or you can delegate them to others, the buck stops with you. You need to make sure that you, and your leadership team, can handle your people issues as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Companies that can solve their people issues quickly and fairly create an atmosphere that attracts star performers.

This atmosphere draws in employees that are accountable and responsible. Conversely, companies that cannot get a handle on this create an atmosphere of sanctioned incompetence, where lackluster performance and bad attitudes are tolerated. Allowing sanctioned incompetence in your organization will drive away the type of people you need to be successful.

There are two main reasons that employees are or can become difficult.

First, they are not a match for your company’s core values. Second, they are not a match for their role. The employee needs to be a match to both their role and the company culture in order to maintain high performance.

Addressing these two issues will help you keep employees from becoming difficult and help you justify the tough decision of having to ask an employee to leave the company if it comes to that.

When dealing with a difficult employee, the first question to ask if the employee is a match to your company’s core values.

You must make sure that everyone in your company matches your culture. Employees that do not match your culture/core values cause friction and disruption as a result. They don’t see things the same way as everyone else. They don’t have the same approach to work. They don’t buy into your team mentality. They don’t fit in.

The first step to ensuring that your employees are a match for your company’s core values is to make sure that they are clearly defined. Does everyone understand how you do business? How you operate?

If you still need to define your core values, you can download our Core Values Definition Exercise here.

The smaller a company is the more easily understood and spread the core values are. Everyone has daily contact with the owner/CEO and therefore they can pick up the core values simply by osmosis. As management extends beyond the touch and control of the founder and/or CEO the core values start to get lost in translation.

The larger your company becomes and the more employees you have, the more it becomes necessary to clearly define your core values so that you can share them. Once you’ve shared them you also need to live them. Your company should reward, discipline, promote, hire, and fire based on these core values. You should constantly remind the team of them by calling out examples of individuals living them in their daily work.

When it comes to an employee matching your core values, the question is binary. It’s a yes or a no. Yes, the employee matches your core values so you should keep going to understand more about why this employee is difficult. No, the employee does not match your core values, they are not a fit for your company, so you should help them find somewhere where they are a fit.

If the difficult employee passes your core values test, next you need to ask if they are a match for their role.

Do they have the intelligence, the knowledge, the training, the experience, and the desire to do the role well? Are they naturally suited to the role? We all gain energy from doing things we love and we all are drained by having to do things we don’t like. It isn’t that we cannot do those things and do them well, but if we have to do them frequently, sheer determination and will are not enough to create happiness and satisfaction.

Matching an employee to the job starts with role clarity. Does the employee understand the expectations of success in the role? Is it abundantly clear? Can a new employee that knows nothing about your company understand what is expected of them from day one?

To get started with role clarity, download our list of job benchmarking questions here.

Role clarity affords you the opportunity to give caring, candid, consistent, clear, and challenging feedback about an employee’s performance in their role. This is key. All of us need to know how we are doing. A lack of feedback tells the employee that you don’t care. When you don’t care, they don’t care.

When you have clarity around your core values and around each and every role in your organization, you will be in a position to quickly and positively deal with your difficult employees. By being able to clearly tell everyone this is how we do business and this is what we expect you to do in your role, you, and every leader in your company, will be able to effectively and efficiently move people up or out.

Good communication is the key to dealing with any employees, but it is even more essential in the process of dealing with difficult employees.

If you communicate what you need from every employee by defining and sharing your core values, clearly defining the success outcomes of every role, and giving feedback about performance, many difficult employees will self-select out of such a well-structured and accountable organization. They will leave the company without you having to fire them. And the employees that are willing to stay and to put in the work are much more likely to become the star performers you need to succeed.