How to Effectively Handle a Difficult Employee Attitude Problem

Anyone that has worked in an office for any length of time has run into them. That co-worker that frustrates you with their nasty behavior. Let’s be honest, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that a difficult employee can affect everyone in the workplace. Their behavior not only obstructs their performance, but it negatively affects everyone in the work environment as well. Furthermore, when these negative behaviors aren’t addressed (and you’d be shocked at how often managers can’t or won’t deal with it), the behavior spreads like a cancer.

Eventually, a difficult employee will degenerate into these behaviors:

  • rudeness
  • bullying
  • gossiping
  • refusing to communicate or share information
  • whining and complaining to supervisors
  • ignoring directives
  • And, slow output of work or missed deadlines.

With behaviors like that, it takes a strong leader to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, good leadership is not an inborn trait. It takes a person who is caring, fair and consistent, skilled in managing people and willing to take responsibility for his or her team’s performance. A truly effective leader is knowledgeable about performance problems and willing to deal with them. Performance problems rarely correct themselves—it takes skilled intervention, including setting performance standards and goals for employees.

Here are some immediate steps you can take when you identify poor attitudes and poor performance:

Steps to take with the difficult employee

  1. Get HR involved—give them the facts and how the employee’s attitude or performance is affecting the department. Be specific and make sure you have documented every incident on paper.
  2. Take the lead and open communication. Explore the reasons behind the unfavorable conduct—this starts with a private and candid conversation with the employee. There could be a multitude of legitimate reasons the employee is acting this way. Find out what it is before trying to remedy it.
  3. Directly tie the employee’s negative behaviors to the department’s goals, functions and objectives. If they can see how it empirically affects business, they’ll likely try harder to change.
  4. Do not discuss an “attitude” problem with the employee as it will put him or her on the defensive. Instead, give specific examples of how a specific behavior has affected both the employee and the rest of the staff. Talk about the relationship between the negative behavior and staff productivity and morale.

Steps to take with the entire team 

  1. Encourage open communication throughout the department.
  2. Personally model ethical and other positive behaviors in your department. In addition, recognize and reward positive behavior.
  3. Clearly communicate to your team that, not only are individual contributions important, so is a respectful, collaborative team environment. Reinforce that everyone is expected to contribute to that environment.
  4. Make project priorities crystal-clear to everyone

Celebrate individuality, not selfishness

Managing the different personalities in your office is one of the hardest parts of your job. While everyone you deal with is a unique individual and should be celebrated as such, a difficult employee presents a different problem. For whatever underlying reason they have, problem employees display a selfishness in their behavior that causes negative ripples throughout the company. Therefore, when you deal with your problem employee, it is vital for you to be open, direct, calm and assertive. 

To help. here’s your own nine-point “boss checklist” to help you maintain positive control of your department:

  1. Define what “unacceptable behavior” is and what the important rules are for your workplace
  2. Write and communicate specific, measurable standards and expectations
  3. Give employees a clear picture of the benefits for honoring policies, standards and agreements
  4. Establish firm consequences for not honoring the policies, standards and agreements
  5. Enforce the policies consistently, without exception
  6. Realize that you can’t legislate “attitude”, just behavior
  7. Examine your own filters and biases to determine if the problem is the employee’s attitude or your own
  8. Acknowledge employees for their skills and abilities. Give them challenging work.
  9. Improve your relationship with employees by getting to know them better

With luck, you’ll be able to turn the problem employee’s negative behavior around before it goes too far. However, sometimes nothing you do will have an effect and you’ll have to enter into the disciplinary phase with the employee. At worst, termination may ultimately be your only option.

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