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leadership, difficult employeesDealing with difficult employees is one of the hardest tasks as a small business owner. The relationships among team members is a crucial part of the company’s success. But difficult employees are a fact of business life. Employee churn is expensive. Ideally, we can work with the employee to turn things around. To handle a difficult employee situation well, managers need a clear process.


Difficult means different things. A difficult employee could be one not performing to standards or to their capabilities. Toxic employees may be technically proficient, yet create a horrible work environment with their bad attitude. For either of these types, continue reading my process outlined below.

However, there are also employees who engage in misconduct. Maybe they ignore safety standards, thus endangering people. Perhaps they’re deliberately ignoring business procedure. You may even find some engaging in illegal or unethical behavior. These folks are far and away past being a “difficult employee.”

Deal with them swiftly and decisively. An employee showing up to work intoxicated can’t return. If appropriate, provide moral or other support as they work through their personal challenges. But you can’t risk the well-being of your customers, other employees and your business.


You can’t address what you don’t know. You should be providing regular feedback and performance reviews for your employees, so performance issues shouldn’t be a surprise to you. In fact, the smaller your company, the easier it should be to see them and the faster they should appear.

Watch and listen to how your employees interact with each other, and with customers. Do employees tend to shy away from working or partnering with the same employee? Why?

Don’t just hope that difficult employees will resolve their own issues without outside management. According to employee management consultant Erika Andersen, “Most managers will spend months, even years, complaining about poor employees… and not ever give them actual feedback about what they need to be doing differently.”

Don’t be that manager.


Now that you’ve identified a difficult employee, it’s time to act. Start by listening to them. Don’t assume that you’re aware of the entire context for their behavior.

Instead, ask them. If there have been changes made to their work, ask them. How do they feel about using the new medical billing codes? How has the teamwork been with the new subcontractors? Does the new waitress feel overwhelmed by the size of her station?

Listening is especially important if the difficult behavior is out of character. Is your normally cheery employee short-tempered lately because her child is having school problems? You won’t know if you don’t ask.

Your perspective on how to handle the situation may change once you hear their perspective. You may even find that having your empathy may be enough for the employee to get back on track.

With more understanding of the employee, be precise about where they’re missing the mark. Don’t personalize your comments. “You have a bad attitude” isn’t helpful and it will only put your employee on the defensive.

Instead, you might say: “I notice you often refuse to bus tables when we’re busy.” Or “I overheard you making unkind comments about [patients / customers / coworkers, etc.].”

Be specific about what goals or tasks aren’t being executed to your company’s standards. As long as you frame it right, employees do want your feedback. They really do want to do a good job.

Then, listen some more. Involve the employee in designing their own “fix.” Ask them if they feel they need additional resources or support they don’t have. Can they identify specific changes in their own behavior that would help them to change?

Often, employees will recognize that their difficult behavior came from a personal trigger. That’s the good news. That means it’s entirely within their power to resolve. Have them contribute to deciding what they would do differently. And how you can support them in that new behavior. This can make all the difference.


As helpful as the conversation is, document the plan for change you’ve created together. Time for more precision. Together specify:

  • What standards aren’t being met
  • How the employee’s behavior will change
  • What they will do differently
  • What results show positive change

The plan to a cure must also be time-limited. Remember our overwhelmed waitress? If the plan is to start her with a smaller station, define exactly which new tables will be added and when. What’s the final date by which she should be handling a full station?

Also outline the consequences if the behaviors aren’t changed and new goals aren’t met. Let’s say an employee is consistently late. Their change plan might specify that they’ll be terminated if they’re late two more times over the next month without good reason.

Documenting the change plan with the employee continues their engagement in their own improvement. It gives them a sense of ownership over how this situation resolves. It also keeps the change plan itself from becoming a future point of contention.


No one likes this part. Not the person being let go or the person doing the letting go. Remember when I mentioned that ignoring their bad behavior is no way to deal with difficult employees? Well, letting it go on after you’ve worked to cure the situation falls into this category.

When is it time? Is the employee refusing to acknowledge that they need change? Or, that there’s even a problem? Did they agree to the change plan, but didn’t make any actual changes? Is the effort to change there, but the results aren’t coming along? This just might not be the position for them.

Your change plan made clear to the employee what would trigger dismissal. So no one should feel surprised when it arrives. The truth is, some situations can’t be fixed.

In some cases, maybe the temperament or skills were never a good match for your business. That doesn’t make anyone the bad guy. It’s just not a fit. Keeping such an employee on doesn’t help them, your other employees, or your company. And in fact, they may feel tremendous relief at being let go because it frees them to find work more suitable for their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Let the employee go respectfully. Then use this as a learning experience when making your next hire.


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