Hard work often refers to the labor required to fulfill a job. But in human resources and managerial terms it can also refer to interpersonal conflict resolution. That sometimes involves handling certain types of difficult employees whose behavior makes life downright painful for others.
It’s usually easier to identify someone as a difficult coworker than it is to know what to do about it. It's generally not a matter of poor performance, which can often be overcome with extra training or attention. Instead it goes deeper, to levels of negative attitude and problematic behavior that adversely impact others. And while it’s no fun managing them, your entire operation might depend on somebody knowing how to deal with difficult employees effectively.
This article will explore common types of difficult employees, their disruptive behavior and tips for turning things around.
Difficult employees demonstrate patterns of behavior that exceed what’s considered quirky, annoying or the mark of a harmlessly negative person. Their mindsets often lead them to act, either intentionally or unwittingly, in ways that cause trouble, upset people or inflict harm.
The extents can range from notoriously irritating to highly toxic. The pervasive effects of bad behavior left unaddressed can include:
In this day and age, it’s worth noting that people can be difficult without even being in the same building. Granted, high-drama employees who seem inescapable at the office may be easier to avoid as remote work and virtual meetings reduce direct interaction. But this doesn’t change attitudes and intentions. People accustomed to mistreating others or undermining efforts don’t necessarily need direct access. They’ll often find a way to dampen the experiences of their teammates, managers and others intuitively. For those most intent on havoc, it's a welcome challenge — like a game or some divergent form of entertainment.
Managing difficult employees or enduring a difficult coworker can be draining over time. In fact, “overtime” isn’t far off for those working extra to deal with or mitigate the adverse effects. So it's important to know what to look for and how to address it if you're noticing workplace change for the worse.
Here we'll provide specific examples of types of difficult personalities and conduct that can disrupt day-to-day operations and employee morale.
Manipulation is about gaining power and control unfairly through persuasive and/or coercive tactics. It typically involves the use of fear, flattery, lies, charm, threats, bribes and/or abuse of influence for ulterior motives and selfish intent.
Manipulative personalities tend to enjoy stirring chaos and drama. They can cause people to second-guess the judgment, intelligence, motives and mental-emotional stability of themselves and others. And they have no problem pitting individuals against one another to accomplish their goals.
While it’s possible for a person to be less-consciously manipulative, for many it’s an insidious psychological strategy. They understand the principles of cause and effect and consider perverting them an art to practice and perfect. The more masterful they become at it, the harder it can be to pinpoint.
Often the best way to handle manipulative employees is to avoid them. Regarding anything questionable, employees should seek a reliable source for the truth, additional perspective or more information. They should stay focused on their own work rather than others’ drama. Also, manipulative employees should be told as little as possible about anything that’s not mutually mission-critical.
Managers should pay attention to reports and signs of manipulation within the organization and take them seriously. Make it clear that the behavior is unacceptable, and give appropriate official warning of consequences according to company policies. Document noteworthy events and offenses, and follow through with consequences if/as warranted.
A saboteur’s conduct can range from mean-spirited at best to criminally devastating at worst. Sabotage in business can involve such activities as destruction of property, hindering of operations, and/or tangible or intellectual property theft. Essentially, it’s sinister behavior designed to bring down an organization or people within it.
Due to the stealth involved, sabotage typically goes undetected until some damage has been done. In hindsight, signs in a person or their conduct often include:
Personal or organizational sabotage is intentional behavior and serious at any level. Employees and managers should be very careful and observant if they suspect or see signs of it. Effective ways to deal with sabotage include:
Additional tips include capturing communication in writing when possible and using email to document correspondence and recap after discussions. Those who notice sabotage should take what preventative security measures they can to protect equipment, data and other company property. Employers can consider deploying what company surveillance measures are legally allowed.
When sufficient evidence presents, employers can take the matter to the extent legally permitted. This may mean anything from official reprimand to firing and/or pressing charges.
Arrogance generally hurts the offender more than anyone else, as this personality trait tends to alienate others.
And it’s not necessarily a mask for incompetence. Many arrogant individuals are excellent at what they do. They can be extraordinarily productive, a valuable source of new ideas, and talented and skilled beyond other employees and managers.
The problem is that they know this. And, rather than simply embracing a healthy and helpful sense of self-confidence, they insist that others know it too.
Arrogant individuals often exude a sense of specialness and entitlement. They may act as though they’re above coworkers and workplace rules and believe that the company cannot manage without them. They can also be uncooperative on and off the job and may tend to belittle others. Behavior can be either overt, unconscious or more passive-aggressive in nature.
Those who notice arrogant behavior can try a direct, authoritative, yet nonconfrontational approach at first. They can consider themselves an objective observer in a position to help raise this person’s awareness of their behavior and its effects.
Consider these tips to help correct behaviors associated with arrogance:
Those who hadn’t realized how they come across may benefit from the thought-provoking insights. They may make appropriate changes that improve their work and personal life.
Others may react very differently, perhaps by throwing a tantrum or presenting themselves as a victim. This could be a manipulative tactic or merely a lack of coping skills. Either way, managers and other employees noticing the arrogant behavior should not engage or perpetuate the setup. Instead, handle difficult employees of this sort by maintaining composure and regaining control of the conversation.
A person who nitpicks often presents as a chronic complainer about what others do and how they do it. Often they’re perfectionistic and hardworking and obsess unnecessarily over insignificant details. They may pressure others to work exactly how they prefer or even avoid delegating work due to perfectionistic standards.
Sometimes these difficult coworkers just can’t help themselves. It’s OK to respectfully acknowledge their hard work, dedication and presumably good intent and quietly consider the critique. If it’s valid criticism, employees can heed it. If it’s not, they should dismiss it.
If constant criticism persists, others may have to either completely ignore it or firmly ask the nitpicker to stop. Ultimately, their professional integrity should guide them.
Rarely is gossip part of anyone’s official job description. Whether it’s born of malice or bad habit, spreading rumors and talking behind others’ backs is immature and harmful. It has no place in a professional setting.
Others know it too, yet many don’t know how to deal with it. So they don’t. And the gossip continues — to the gratification of some, the discomfort of others and the degradation of all.
To deal with difficult employees in the gossip arena, others should lead by example. They can call out the bad behavior and avoid engaging in it, even as a passive listener. Regardless of their intent, without an audience gossips can’t operate. Every employee can model what it takes to put gossipers out of business.
On the HR front, consider establishing and enforcing policies and specific consequences regarding this problematic behavior.
Bullying can be covert, as in under the radar, or overt, as in a public display. The abuse can be verbal, psychological, physical or otherwise.
Bullying behavior is designed to intimidate, weaken and/or control others. Sometimes imposing or threatening body language makes it easy to spot. Typically the abuse is directed at people whom the bully perceives as less empowered or somehow “easy” targets. That in itself can cause victims to question their sense of self-worth and how they’re perceived by others.
At a minimum, bullying can be embarrassing, demoralizing and disheartening. It can result in poor employee performance by those most affected and in increasingly disengaged employees overall. In worst cases, bullies can cause serious trauma, depression, dysfunction and/or physical harm.
Every organization or HR department should have clear policies for identifying and addressing these toxic employees. In addition, managers and other employees can:
Remember that if bullying persists, good employees may seek another job.
Sometimes it’s hard to determine what’s behind bad behavior. It could be intentional, or it could instead be a cognitive, developmental, emotional or psychological impediment affecting one’s personality. Diplomatic HR personnel, managers and staff tend to want to be fair and positively effective. And it can be tricky trying to reconcile frustration with compassion while attempting to discern true motives and impact. This can be especially true for a new manager who lacks historical knowledge of the individuals and workplace dynamics involved.
Nevertheless, it’s critical to recognize and address the issues promptly, fairly and effectively. At the bare minimum, leaders and colleagues must remain professional. Losing tempers in the workplace is not an option. Nor is ignoring the problem. For every situation, there’s a working balance.
The first step to dealing with high-drama or toxic employees is to make things clear in a variety of forms. One of the most effective is leading by example. If managers, senior employees and leadership take an abrasive or drama-filled approach to work, that behavior is likely to proliferate. So instead, they should model the mindful behavior they'd like others to adopt.
Next, consider making it a clear company policy or a transparent expectation that your organization doesn’t tolerate needless drama. Of course, all kinds of legitimate issues can result in drama on their path to being resolved. But that’s different from office gossip, bullying and other behaviors that detract from a safe, productive work environment for all.
When you have a high-drama employee on your hands, you may be tasked with running interference and damage control.
When necessary, interject as issues arise in a way that preserves dignity while redirecting dynamics. Assess any damage that may have occurred. Has there been a victim of this person’s drama, gossip or harassment? If so, your immediate obligation is to help those whom the drama has harmed.
Even in the absence of a targeted victim, the entire office could be suffering from low morale if the issue has been ongoing. So consider addressing the root and the damage on multiple levels.
Have the tough conversations when necessary. You never know what they'll reveal.
For example, it may turn out that you have a leadership issue on your hands. Perhaps the difficult employee has had enough of a bad manager with an abusive communication style and is imitating that behavior.
For employees struggling to overcome their own dysfunctional behavior, suggest they take advantage of counseling via the company health plan.
Sometimes a challenging employee can course-correct with coaching, direction and new opportunities to engage and improve. If the source of drama is boredom, help them toward being properly engaged in their role. Try focusing on their pathway to promotion within the company or another personal or professional goal. Encourage community involvement, which might include internal and external opportunities to mentor others in specific areas of strength or expertise.
Observe and monitor subsequent behaviors, and take opportunities to acknowledge positive change or incremental progress.
By recognizing and understanding signs of strife, you can address them more quickly and effectively. If your ultimate goal is workplace respect, engagement and productivity, that standard must be established and communicated companywide. Amend your employee handbook to include behavioral policies. Provide brief but specific examples of bad behavior vs. the correct behaviors within the context of common scenarios.
When a challenging employee cares and ultimately means no harm, better behavior can be learned. For those who don't care or do mean harm, let due consequences prevail.
In the field of employee management, retention and growth, there's always more than meets the eye. For Human Resources departments in need of support for improving employee performance, engaging disengaged employees, dealing with difficult employees and more, a professional HR provider can help turn things around. Speak with a TriNet representative today to discover how.