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How Do You Deal With Difficult Employees?

HR professionals share their stories about handling problem people at work.

Dig Deeper

​You went into HR because you love people, right?

But admit it—sometimes those people can be real pains. 

In every group, there seems to be at least one person who saps morale, slows productivity and stirs up anger in other team members because of his or her bad attitude, refusal to play by the rules or just plain disturbing behavior. And you know you can’t let these situations fester. 

To give you some practical tips on what to do, we asked HR professionals to share their stories about difficult employees and what they learned from dealing with problem people over the years. Here’s what your peers had to say.  

Learn Their Strengths

I heard talk around the office about a particular employee’s habit of avoiding work. While her colleagues carried a heavy workload, she spent a lot of time engaging in personal matters during work hours. She found clever ways of deflecting her responsibilities and having those around her address them. For example, if a customer called, instead of taking care of his or her concern immediately, she asked the person to call back when she knew others would be around to follow up. 

After taking time to get to know her better, I learned that she was actually quite miserable in her current role. I helped her to establish career goals and develop a plan for achieving them. Her behavior toward others improved after she transitioned into a different position. The employee ultimately became a go-to person in her department. 

Lessons learned: When you focus on finding the right fit between an employee’s strengths and the job she is asked to perform, success is almost guaranteed to follow. Coach employees to develop a plan that will help them reach their goals. Finally, provide abundant feedback and celebrate their achievements. This will create a win-win situation for both the employees and the organization.

—Jennifer Diaz, SHRM-CP, director of HR, World Evolve Inc., Miami

​Identify the Problem

What defines a “difficult” employee? Is it a person who is a little unorthodox in his approach to work but stays inside the lines enough to avoid disciplinary issues? Or the worker whose manager never helped set her up for success or who put her in a no-win situation? Is it the person who is facing tremendous personal challenges and just doesn’t have the coping mechanisms to handle problems at work as well? 

We can all identify specific behaviors that cause us to label employees. But to me, the more important questions are: What is the root cause of people’s actions? Why would individuals choose to act out in the place where they make their livelihood? I don’t believe that employees wake up in the morning thinking about how to screw up at work. But most of us have probably been in a situation where we daydreamed about telling our boss off or walking out the door and never coming back.

We can’t “fix” employees the way we can a leaky faucet. They are the people we decided to hire or retain at our organizations, and we are responsible for identifying what may be causing them to act in a manner that we’ve decided makes them “difficult.” 

I’m not saying that you should tolerate employees who are insubordinate, violent or threatening—those are grounds for immediate dismissal. But such cases are few and far between.

Lessons learned: I’ve learned to listen and try not to make assumptions. It’s not easy. I’m only human. I’ve also figured out how much I am willing to tolerate. Sometimes the “difficult” employee isn’t the problem; it’s the organization’s culture. Other times, the employee is just a pain, and you need to help him be happy—somewhere else.

—Sarah L. Davis, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, HR manager, Carlton Fields, Tampa, Fla.

Delve Down

At a previous company, I had an employee in her first professional position after graduate school who had a bad attitude. She complained frequently about putting in long hours, and no one liked working with her.

When she came to talk to me about feeling overwhelmed in her job, I listened and recommended some resources, including the employee assistance program, to help her cope with the demands of her role. I also told her that if she felt the position wasn’t right for her, it was OK to seek opportunities elsewhere and perhaps return after she gained more experience. She seemed relieved.

Then we got to the real issue behind her long work hours. In the course of our conversation, it became clear that work was all she had going on in her life. She was new to the area and hadn’t yet made any social connections. We talked about how she could become a part of the community. She reconnected with her sorority via the local alumnae chapter and took on a leadership position. Things really changed for her.

She ended up leaving our company on good terms, and she said that having activities outside of work gave her confidence to move forward in her career. We’re still in touch even though we both have moved on to other organizations.

Lessons learned: Engaging with the employee helped me get to the real issue fast. The old adage of not putting all of your eggs in one basket is good for everyone to remember. We need to balance our work life with outside interests that engage us in different ways.

—Vickie L. Robinson, SHRM-CP, national director of HR, Armed Services YMCA of the USA, Springfield, Va.


Be Transparent

After I was promoted to a newly created recruiting position, one director was apparently nervous about how I would affect others’ jobs. This individual became combative and even went to the vice president, who was my new manager, alleging that I was taking credit for others’ efforts, failing to visit recruiting locations frequently enough and not spending enough time with the team.

I responded by presenting facts. I provided evidence that tracked my recruiting efforts and success rates as well as how I had praised hiring managers and HR professionals involved in each hire. I showed this director my calendar, which clearly spelled out where I was going and what was being discussed at each location. I also shared examples of my work, including a training session with HR managers to help them explain the importance of recruiting to the operations managers. Finally, I conducted a survey of HR managers, who indicated support for my new position.

Lessons learned: Be as transparent as possible and constantly seek feedback, especially with new initiatives and roles. I could have become defensive, but I saw that this director was reacting out of fear. As frustrating as it was, I wanted to overcome this person’s apprehensions and gain an advocate. I have since been promoted to a director role, and I continue to explore novel ways to develop current HR managers so they can advance in their careers.

My advice: Don’t take criticism personally. Rely on facts to educate others, and figure out a way to work with each other to achieve the company’s goals.

—Toby Atkinson, SHRM-CP, HR director, Mid South Region of North Carolina, Cintas Corp., Statesville, N.C.

Communicate Clearly

Years ago, I had a micromanaging supervisor who found fault with everything her direct reports, including me, did. She had an analytical mind and drilled everything down to the very core, but she never shared all of the information that was needed to complete a task correctly. It wasn’t out of malice; she simply assumed that everyone thought the same way she did and was shocked to learn otherwise. I dealt with this behavior by taking notes on each conversation, asking questions and listening for an action item. I tried to stay ahead of the action items by providing daily follow-up on my progress. 

Lessons learned: I learned to communicate more clearly and to be more detail-oriented in tackling assigned tasks. Expectations of the HR role vary from employer to employer, so it is particularly important to understand exactly what’s being asked of you.

—Vicky Sherry-Moore, HR manager, Genex Systems, Newport News, Va.

Plan Ahead

Screen Well

At a previous company, we hired someone as a program aide who seemed to be more interested in climbing her way up to become CEO than doing actual work. Of course, the error in our hiring decision revealed itself all too abruptly when she argued with me, in front of our customers, about completing a small task that I had asked her to do while I handled other business. She felt her time would be best utilized accompanying me on one of my assignments. 

When I insisted that she stay behind to greet our customers, she abandoned her station—and our customers—to go to headquarters to complain. The program manager was stunned by the aide’s lack of professional maturity. I was baffled as well. Needless to say, she was released.

Lessons learned: This experience reinforced for me the importance of conducting proper background screening, reference checks and behavioral-based interviews.

—Crystal Black, program coordinator, Action Management Corp., Flint, Mich.

Be Prepared

We had a male employee who was the subject of a workplace harassment complaint. A co-worker reported that he threatened her when she refused his requests for a date. After learning that she had a boyfriend, the male worker allegedly punched, kicked and pushed over a soda machine. We decided to terminate his employment, but we were concerned that he might react violently. 

I partnered with the security team to investigate the allegations and develop workplace safety measures for the female worker. I met with the male employee in a neutral, private location to deliver our findings. Once we decided to fire him, I coached the business leader on how to conduct the meeting. We took safety precautions but made sure they weren’t visible to the employee. Fortunately, he didn’t react in an aggressive manner. 

In another situation, a high-level female executive within the organization was so upset when someone arrived late to a meeting that she literally charged at him and pushed him out of the office. We were all shocked into silence, and then the meeting resumed as if nothing had happened. Later, I privately addressed the behavior with the leader. However, to my regret, we never discussed the incident as a group. What I didn’t know was that this leader was already widely perceived to be a bully who intimidated others—even though she was under 5 feet tall.

Lessons learned: Be prepared. Whether the worst-case scenario comes to pass or not, it’s better to be safe than sorry. When you see someone at any level behave inappropriately, reinforce the company’s expectations for conduct at work. Act quickly and responsibly to lead the team back on track. 

Both examples also highlight that our assumptions aren’t always correct. The previously violent man left in peace, while the diminutive woman resorted to using bodily force. Intimidation can take many forms—wielding physical strength or positions of power. Part of being ready means learning to expect the unexpected.

—Tracy Frazier, SHRM-SCP, director, advice and counsel services, HR, Memorial Hermann Health System, Houston

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Workplace Conflict]

Stay Calm

Show Respect 

I once took over the position of an HR colleague who was resigning. When I asked her why she was leaving, she said, “The employees here are horrible! If you discipline them, they’ll scratch your car!” 

But I soon discovered that she could be difficult in her own right. She took a judgmental approach in dealing with the staff and often shook her finger at them when she got angry. When she delivered corrective action, she would occasionally offer admonitions like, “You know better than this!” 

So I decided early on that I would reserve my emotions for situations that I felt could only be improved by displaying them. I don’t mean that I was insincere. It’s just that sometimes I wanted employees to see me as a compassionate human being, and other times I preferred that they view me as someone with no emotional investment in a particular outcome.

I soon got to test my theory when a worker who was an alleged gang member flashed a knife at a fellow employee while on the job. When I terminated his employment, the last thing I wanted to do was to give him a reason to direct his anger toward me (or my car). I needed for him to be upset with himself and to learn from his actions. I sat him down, presented his termination notice and said, “I’m sure you know why we’re here. Most employers, including our company, have zero-tolerance policies against any sort of violence or threats in the workplace. Unfortunately, the necessary result of your actions today is going to be the termination of your employment. This document explains the situation to you. I know I can’t make you sign it, but I’d like for you to. Your signature is not an agreement, but just an acknowledgment that we had this conversation.” He signed it, and I asked if he had any questions. He then left peacefully.

Lessons learned: I concluded that what’s important isn’t whether I display emotion but whether I’m able to show respect. If an employee is being difficult, I do my best to understand why he’s behaving that way. If the behavior warrants formal corrective action, then I always treat the employee with respect and honesty. It works. My car still hasn’t been scratched.

—Jason Kelinske, SHRM-CP, HR business partner, Sinomax-USA, Houston

Be Fair 

Most people become difficult when they feel like they’re not being treated fairly or consistently. Complaints are raised to me or my team when employees feel like there’s nowhere else to turn, so associates are usually more difficult at this stage. The range of difficulty varies. They may have created an uncomfortable atmosphere in their department. We’ve had people become agitated and leave work abruptly or say things that weren’t appropriate. We’ve had workers post negative comments about their supervisors or the company on social media. 

The best thing you can do is listen. Set up a time to speak with the associate. Ask why she’s frustrated. When did it begin? How did it get to this point? Speak to the other parties involved. Frequently, you find that it’s a misunderstanding and there are two sides to the story. 

Lessons learned: Never take anything at face value. You may think that the associate is being difficult, but in reality there is a legitimate reason for her frustration. If you can work through the issue, you may be able to turn the situation around. 

Be patient and treat the associate with sensitivity. You don’t know what others are going through in their personal lives. Usually, people are being difficult as a cry for help. Try to get them to respond reasonably rather than emotionally.

—Denise Domian, senior vice president, HR, The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., Milwaukee