Tactics for managers to deal with a difficult employee

Written by: Nora St-Aubin | Illustrated by: Aless Mc
Updated on: Published on: February 5, 2021 |  Reading time: 7m

In a perfect world, no manager would need training or advice on how to deal with a difficult employee. Teams would be made up of motivated and passionate high-performers who always act with integrity and treat others with respect. But the fact is that no one is perfect, and sometimes tensions flare, personalities clash, emotions run hot, or ego gets in the way. When you’re dealing with a difficult employee, managing your team can start to feel a little more personal, and a lot more challenging.

Problematic employee behavior like aggression or dishonesty must be addressed directly in a one-on-one conversation. Learning to do this effectively is important, because when this behavior turns into a pattern it can lead to peer conflict and decreased team morale. Keep reading for tips on how to approach these challenging conversations. Plus, we go over tactics to address difficult employee behavior.

What makes an employee difficult?

Before we get into how to deal with a difficult employee, it’s important to understand what it really means for someone on your team to be “difficult.” Voicing an opinion or challenging a group decision doesn’t equate to being a troublesome teammate. Healthy disagreement should be encouraged and embraced on teams where people feel safe to be themselves. It’s when someone’s actions or words infringe upon that feeling of safety for someone else that a problem arises.

Employee behavior to look out for:

  • Condescension: Speaking down to a colleague, or making reference to their age or experience to discredit them.
  • Passive-aggression: An employee is rude under the guise of sarcasm, or downplays the achievements of others.
  • Dishonesty: Someone outright lies, or purposely misrepresents or omits essential information in work discussions.
  • Negativity: Displaying a consistently negative attitude towards work or shutting down other people’s ideas.
  • Gossip: Talking about a coworker in a negative light behind their back.
  • Aggression: Raising their voice or acting out violently (breaks something, uses derogatory language, etc.).

Maintain ongoing communication
Keeping a recurring one-on-one meeting with every member of your team helps you keep tabs on team dynamics and coach people individually. Officevibe’s one-on-one software has editable agenda templates to help you structure discussions effectively, including difficult conversations. Plus, it gives you and your team members a shared space for all of your talking points, notes, and action items, keeping everyone accountable.

manager standing in front of an 1:1 dashboard

Prep one-on-ones in record time!

1-on-1 software that makes planning quick and conversations meaningful.

How to deal with a difficult employee

Something has happened, and you know you need to have a difficult conversation with an employee on your team about their disruptive behavior. First, schedule a one-on-one with the difficult employee and add a talking point to your meeting agenda about the issue. This way, you’re both aware the conversation is coming. You can try the difficult conversation template available in Officevibe’s one-on-one software, and carry out this tough talk with the tips outlined below.

  1. Name the issue you are there to discuss and state the impact it had: what happened, who or what did it harm, why or how?
  2. Ask the person about what motivated their behavior and what led up to it. You can empathize with how they’re feeling without condoning their actions.
  3. Focus the conversation on the employee’s actions (“you rolled your eyes”) and avoid passing judgments (“you were giving attitude”).
  4. If necessary, outline the repercussions that they are facing or will face should the behavior repeat itself.
  5. Explore possible ways to address what caused them to behave this way, and to rectify the outcome.
Officevibe one-on-one agenda that you can add talking point

Check in with yourself, too
You might be feeling personally upset or disappointed about what’s happened, which is only natural for a manager who cares about the people on their team. Practice compassion for yourself as well as your team member. Make space to process your thoughts about what’s happened. This will make it easier to manage your emotions and prioritize the well-being of your team as you handle the difficult situation.

De-escalating an aggressive employee

Aggressive employee behavior is very troubling, and unlike other behaviors it’s important for managers to know how to handle aggression in the heat of the moment. If someone raises their voice, becomes argumentative, or starts acting out angrily, the most important thing is to defuse and de-escalate the situation. If tensions reach a boiling point and an employee becomes aggressive, try these tactics:

  • End the conversation: Disengage from discussing the topic at hand and shift the focus to the problem behavior.
  • Acknowledge feelings, denounce actions: Say “I see that you feel strongly about this, but yelling and swearing is not okay.”
  • Don’t match the escalation: Maintain your volume, tone, and level of emotion as best as you can.
  • Create an exit opportunity: Tell everyone to take a break or end the meeting to allow people to cool off.
  • Find a common ground: Look for something you can agree or align on, like the end goal or a team value.

Addressing a passive aggressive employee

Unlike outright aggression, passive aggressive behavior is often subtle, making it tougher to pinpoint and easier for people to justify or explain away. Managers need to be careful not to fall into a “trap” with a passive aggressive employee, where their attempt to address it ends up being equally passive. Taking a direct approach when someone fails to be forthright both shows them that their communication style isn’t working and uncovers the heart of the issue.

Be upfront with an employee who acts passive-aggressively, and bring up the behavior in a one-on-one so that the conversation can’t be avoided. Do so with empathy, because if someone has trouble asserting themselves, stating an opinion, or asking a question, it might stem from a place of insecurity or a lack of confidence. 

Try saying something like:

  • “I’m not sure I understand your point, could you walk me through it?”
  • “I think I’m missing something. Can we discuss this in less abstract terms?”
  • “I know your comment was meant as a joke, but I found it hurtful.”

Sometimes, this type of behaviour can happen when a manager isn’t around—and that’s especially true in a remote work context. Passive aggression between colleagues can be even more harmful when the person on the receiving end feels like they’re alone. Anonymous employee feedback tools allow you to track your team’s feelings about their peer-to-peer relationships. Plus, it gives team members the chance to talk to you about conflict with other employees through anonymous (or non-anonymous!) feedback, so you can keep eyes on the situation, even when you aren’t there.

Officevibe metrics

Motivating a negative employee

Pessimism is infectious, and a consistently negative employee can quickly dampen the motivation of a whole team. It’s not about having a facade of being happy all the time, it’s about creating a team environment where people uplift one another and see opportunities in a challenge. There are many employee motivation techniques you can try with your direct report. The first step is figuring out what’s beneath their bad attitude.

Ask questions during a one-on-one with a negative employee to better understand what makes them feel excited at work, and what’s weighing them down. They might crave autonomy, or want to work more collaboratively. They could be interested in taking on more challenging tasks, or their workload could be overwhelming them. Opening up the conversation with the goal of understanding helps you coach employees in their role and shift their mindset.

Ask questions to uncover the root of negativity:

  • Can you share a recent example of a work situation in which you thrived? What were the key components that led to your success?
  • Do you need to have a clearer picture of how your individual goals allow us to attain our goals as a team or a company?
  • In your judgement, is your workload reasonable? If it isn’t, can you suggest solutions that we could implement together to address the problem?

Access these conversation prompts and dozens more in Officevibe’s one-on-one software. Try the easy-to-edit agenda templates for difficult conversations and other common 1-on-1 topics.

As a manager, you have the challenging task of facilitating teamwork between people who might not always see eye-to-eye. The important thing is that people treat each other with respect, and healthy disagreement doesn’t devolve into hostile confrontation. Take action when you see bad behavior on your team, to keep the environment safe and collaborative for everyone.

manager standing in front of an 1:1 dashboard

Prep one-on-ones in record time!

1-on-1 software that makes planning quick and conversations meaningful.