Interpersonal struggles are inevitable in the workplace. Each one of us is human, and each one of us has pet peeves or issues that can occasionally make it difficult to work with others.
But as any manager knows, some employees tend to be consistently more difficult than others.
When most of us use the word “difficult” to describe an employee, it’s usually because the employee actively refuses to cooperate with others, or exhibits behavior that is hurtful to other employees.
That hurtful behavior can do far more damage to your organization than you may initially realize. It damages morale and productivity in the short-term, of course. But over the long-term it can create a toxic environment that affects your entire workforce. It can even lay the groundwork for discrimination and harassment lawsuits against your organization.
Here are a few ways you can address difficult employees’ behavior to prevent that kind of damage.
1. Explain the Cost of the Behavior
Employees might not always see the big picture about why a certain type of behavior matters in the workplace. They might see their actions as “no big deal” or “just part of their process for getting work done” (the latter is a popular excuse for “big shots” in the workplace).
That’s why at ELI, we always encourage employers to tie behavior back to the organization’s bottom line.
Explanations about values and hurt feelings don’t always resonate with employees. And warnings about potential lawsuits may convince the difficult employee that you’re not serious about getting them to stop their behavior — as long as they can check all the boxes to cover themselves legally.
However, concrete examples about how certain behavior directly impacts your team’s ability to get their work done are difficult to argue with.
Bad behavior comes in all forms, but all of them come with a tangible cost. The cost may come in the form of lower productivity, missed deadlines, or missed hiring opportunities, for example.
Your employees should understand those costs. Helping difficult employees understand the stakes can lay the foundation for the conversation about changes.
2. Get to the Root of the Behavior
Before you attempt to correct any problematic behavior, you must understand what’s causing it.
People generally want to enjoy their work. If you can help them remove the obstacles that are preventing them from enjoying it, you may be able to eliminate the problematic behavior completely.
For example, there could be serious issues going on in their personal life that have spilled over into work. Or, there could be hidden workplace dynamics affecting the situation that you need to know about, such as bad behavior by another employee, or cultural issues that have been encouraging the bad behavior.
The ability to listen without judgment is often considered a “soft skill.” But we at ELI think it’s one of the most critical skills your employees can have. Getting to the root of problematic behavior is just one of the instances where great listening skills are crucial.
Go into the conversation with the employee with an open mind. Be mindful of your body language and eye contact as you focus on what they’re saying. Avoid judgments, assumptions, and accusations. Discuss the behavior in a neutral way, focusing on the issues instead of the person. Do your best to empathize with them and connect with them in some way.
If you can get your difficult employee to confide in you, may just get a lot of valuable insights into how to make improvements for everyone.
3. Get Specific About How to Change Behavior
Most workplace behavioral training focuses on identifying behaviors to avoid. However, that alone won’t give employees the tools they need to make a change.
In addition to understanding which behaviors are cause problems, employees need to practice good behaviors, too. It helps to get specific and try to find the “positive opposite” of a negative behavior.
For example, telling employees that it’s important for them to “act respectfully” during meetings isn’t likely to resonate. Rules like “we wait until someone is finished speaking to speak ourselves” or “we keep our voices low and conversational during meetings” are much more helpful.
Investing in a workplace training program that respects the importance of actionable training and gives employees a chance to practice better behavior is a good idea for this reason.
4. Connect Them With Resources
As we all know, changing behavior can be very difficult. It rarely happens quickly. In most cases, it takes more than just a verbal redirection to make meaningful change.
You can increase the odds that your “difficult” employees will change their behavior for the long-term by connecting them with additional tools.
For example, some employers offer an Employee Assistance Program to help employees manage personal issues that have started to impact their work performance.
EAPs were originally created to address alcoholism and drug use in the workplace, but have evolved to address a wide variety of issues. Employees may seek help for issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression, or even get connected to resources that can help them with finances, family emergencies, or marital problems.
Good EAPs may offer services such as offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services.
However, if the root of the problem is work-related and not personal, you have even more leverage to potentially make a change.
You can try to adjust a difficult employee’s work responsibilities, meet with some of the colleagues they’re having problems with, or even take broader measures to adjust company culture in a way that alleviates their stress.
The key is to make sure that you’re proactively helping employees instead of just reprimanding them and wishing them luck. Give them the resources they need to succeed.
5. Hold Them Accountable
Of course, in some cases, an employee simply will not be able to thrive in your workplace despite your best efforts.
That’s where a strong foundation in legal and HR skills is helpful.
Each problem you have with an employee should be well-documented. Your response to their behavior, including plans for improvement and the resources you connected them with, should also be documented.
If you’ve done your job right, employees will never be surprised when they face disciplinary actions, including the termination of their contract.
If you’re looking for a professional partner to work with your entire organization to curb bad behavior and encourage good behavior, please reach out to us at ELI. We work with organizations of all sizes to lay the foundations for a civil workplace culture.
Our team has deep legal expertise, and our training programs all give employees a chance to “practice” good behavior in a safe place. Click here to contact us and learn more.