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HR HR Advice

How to Deal with Difficult Staff

7 Dec 2023

A thorn in your business’s side might seem insignificant at first, but left to fester it could cause issues. That’s why dealing with difficult staff sensitively and effectively can be life-saving for business owners. For HR professionals it’s the bread and butter of their job, but for business owners, it’s often an afterthought. That’s why it’s so important to get professional guidance from the get-go.

But in the meantime, let’s dive into how business owners can make a start themselves:

Benefit of the Doubt

Before jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst, it’s important to do the decent thing and ask why. I’m sure we’ve all worked with a difficult member of staff or someone who seems completely oblivious to those around them. But before you judge, understand there might be underlying issues that are negatively affecting the team member. As a boss, it’s your job to try and get to the bottom of the problem and offer support in whatever way possible. Sometimes the problem will be bigger than work, and people can have all kinds of issues in their lives that spill over into the workplace.

Open Communication

The key to solving most issues in life is open and honest communication, and dealing with tricky staff is no different. Once you’ve identified the issue, it’s super important to hear the employee’s perspective. Hear what they have to say, listen to their grievances, and try to understand the issue from their side. It’s also worth getting the perspective of another manager to offer a balanced view of things so you can assess the best way to proceed.

Set Clear Expectations

People like to know where they stand. A lot of issues in the workplace arise from a blurring of the lines concerning job responsibilities and expectations. Staff might be working longer hours, taking on responsibilities outside of their role or picking up the slack of another employee. All of which can be the seed of a problem that goes on to cause a bigger issue. Clarity is key. Everyone should know exactly what their role is, what’s expected of them, who they report to, and when they need to be in work. It sounds simple but sometimes the uncertainty of NOT knowing these things can be the start of a problem.

The Feedback Loop

Feedback is good. Feedback lets you know what you’re doing well and where you’re struggling. For any performance-related issues, you should provide constructive and timely feedback so they know exactly what to improve on. Dealing with difficult staff needs to done sensitively, and offering feedback is the first step towards reconciliation.

Try not to be accusatory and bear in mind their perspective when offering feedback. Sometimes the method of feedback is important too. We’ve all been on the end of a particularly sassy message which on first read could be taken the wrong way.

Speaking in person or over the phone is always best, things can be lost in translation over message or email.

Also, be specific with any feedback and offer examples of what they need to work on. For example, if they missed a deadline, discuss this with them and work out how you can both try to avoid this in the future.

Any coaching or training that results from these discussions should then be tailored to the specific issue, helping them solve the problem in question.

Progressive Discipline

Sometimes disciplinary procedures are the only answer to difficult staff. No one enjoys it, but sometimes it’s necessary.

In cases where behavioural or performance issues persist, you may need to implement progressive discipline. This involves a structured approach, starting with verbal warnings and progressing to written warnings or performance improvement plans (PIPs). Clearly document each step of the process to maintain transparency to keep track of where you’re up to.

Resolving Conflict at Work

Sometimes situations come to a head and conflicts arise in the workplace when dealing with difficult staff. When it does, as an employer, it’s important to put things right and to resolve the conflict as best as possible. For interpersonal conflicts, you might have to bring in a mediator to hold the conversation between the two parties and to help them get to the bottom of the issue. This is often where HR support might come into action and you might need the help of an outside source. The situation will depend on the individual case, but whichever route you take, it’s important to keep in mind that the overall aim is to put the conflict to rest and to stop it from spilling into other areas of the workplace.

Get Protected

Sometimes, things may escalate further and you may have to seek legal advice from a professional. It’s beneficial to familiarise yourself with employment law, and to pre-emptively have all your employment contracts and procedures in place from the get to ensure you’re protected should anything go wrong. An employee handbook that houses all your HR policies is a good way to set expectations from the get-go and to ensure that both employees and employers are protected.

Sometimes as a business owner or boss, you’ll have to have difficult conversations. You’ll be forced to deal with difficult staff members, and unfortunately, that is just a part of working. Take solace in the fact that no one enjoys doing this, but as long as you handle the situation fairly, then that is all you can do. And failing that, you can get outside support from human resources.