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The Rise of the Difficult Employee?

June CoverThese days, more HR professionals are requesting guidance on how to deal with difficult employees, according to advisors at the Society for Human Resource Management's HR Knowledge Center and several employee assistance programs. But what might be causing this?

Is the number of difficult individuals growing? Or have stressful workplaces simply brought out the worst in more employees?

Are managers growing more willing to tolerate difficult employees if they are high-performers? Or are business leaders more concerned about legal problems related to dismissing difficult employees?

The answer may be a combination of all of these factors.

Managers' referrals of workers to employee assistance programs and fitness-for-duty evaluations rose by 120 percent in four years, according to a February report from Harris, Rothenberg International, an HR services company that operates an employee assistance program. The volume of these referrals and evaluations among its clients averaged 23.3 per month in 2008 but rose to 51.2 per month by 2011.

The report noted that fitness-of-duty evaluations are requested following crises in workplaces such as suicidal behaviors, potential for violence toward others, psychoses or other mental breakdowns "triggered by extreme stress at home or at work."

The report attributed the rise in referrals and evaluations largely to a more stressful work environment. Between 2008 and 2011, many organizations reduced head counts, leaving fewer employees to do more work.

Many employees are also under financial stress. Their spouses may have lost their jobs. Or their wages are stagnant and their homes and other investments have lost value. It would make sense if these circumstances led to an increase in stress-related incidents or workplace crises.

Could a rise in the "difficult employee" problem be growing in tandem with an overall rise in "difficult people" in general? There is ongoing debate.

Some research psychologists such as Jean M. Twenge have shown increases over time in some measures of negative personality traits such as narcissism. Other researchers have come to different conclusions when examining similar data sets. So, the jury is still out about whether society is producing more difficult individuals and hence more difficult employees.

Even if we could prove that there are more difficult people in the workplace today than in the past, it would not solve the immediate problem of finding solutions to workplace conflicts and other problems related to difficult employees.

Harris, Rothenberg International reports that HR professionals commonly deal with difficult employees by working more closely with representatives of employee assistance programs.

As a result of this growing demand, perhaps more and better resources will become available to employers to find help for employees who need it. In the meantime, HR professionals and other business leaders must focus on building work environments that enhance teamwork and reduce employee stress.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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SHRM web page: Workplace Trends and Forecasting home page


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