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Difficult Employee. Every manager has had at least one. Every organization has had its own fair share of frustrating participants in its workforce. We have come to believe that it is an inevitable part of running a business, regardless of the scale and industry.

Unfortunately, a lot of employers and managers fail to recognize both the short and long-term domino effects that a single difficult employee can cause. At the very least, it takes only a single person to mess up the seamless dynamics of an efficient team and set back your productivity for a month.

It is especially challenging in the case of people who have just recovered from addiction. We’re all up to giving second chances to people who deserve them and we understand how difficult it is for these people to find a job.

However, you also need to take note of the challenges you can potentially face. For instance, it can be difficult for someone who’s faced constant prejudice to constantly feel defensive and maintain good communication.

Hence, in this article, allow us to help you out by sharing a quick guide on managing difficult employees. We will be listing the red flags that identify them, discussing the importance of learning how to deal with difficult employees and disruptive behaviors, sharing the different types of difficult employees along with tips on how to deal with them, and more.

Who are difficult employees?

Each manager probably has his own definition of who a difficult employee is. For the purposes of this article, though, we define one as a worker who fails to conduct himself in a professional manner in the workplace.

Here are just some of the red flags that identify them from others:

1. Evokes complaints

One of the first tell-tale signs of a difficult employee is the complaints coming in, not just from customers but co-workers as well. You can also look for indirect details like a significant increase in product returns or growing reports of missing and/or broken items from your customer service team.

2. Outwardly displays a negative attitude

Negative behaviors can be expressed in different ways, from a lack of engagement to a clear absence of initiative. It can also be displayed as demotivation which is typically displayed through poor punctuality.

This should be dealt with immediately to prevent affecting employee morale.

3. Violates company policies knowingly

Lastly, be on the lookout for employees who act contrary to company rules. They might work efficiently by themselves or with their team一customers might even enjoy their company.

However, this doesn’t give them a free pass to commit serious misconduct such as threats of violence, possession of weapons, harassment, and more.

Importance of managing difficult employees and disruptive behaviors

Failing to manage disruptive behavior can severely impact your company in ways you might not even realize. As we have mentioned above, it can affect your work environment, employee morale, and job satisfaction levels. You may lose both good employees and loyal customers over it.

More pressingly, though, it can ruin your company’s reputation in the long run. Do not underestimate the damage that interaction with a single employee can do, especially one committedly repeatedly.

Unfortunately, bad events are more memorable than good ones and can spread via word-of-mouth (both offline and online) like wildfire. This applies not just to the stories that your customers tell about your company, but to your employees too.

Types of difficult employees

There are five major types of difficult employees. Here they are:

1. The lazy

Lazy employees are easy to spot, but we can see why they are easy to mistake with under-performing employees. So what’s the difference? Well, it lies in the struggle. Under-performing employees are workers that work hard but fail to deliver the expected result.

It can be caused by several things: family issues, financial problems, and just lack of skill and experience. Meanwhile, lazy employees don’t put in any effort at all. They heavily rely on others to pull their weight.

2. The overly ambitious

There’s nothing wrong with ambition. It can provide motivation and inspire excellence. On the other hand, nobody likes a show-off and a try-hard一characteristics that define not someone who wants to assume a leadership role, but an overly ambitious employee.

Tread carefully when spotting them as you don’t want to discourage and demotivate perfectly good employees. Instead, try to look for workers who constantly go out of their way to outdo and outshine not just their co-workers but authority as well.

For instance, a driven employee will strive to deliver a great performance. Meanwhile, an overly ambitious employee will question the assignment given to him and will blatantly go his own way instead of following what’s instructed.

3. The dramatic

Interestingly, finding the overly ambitious employee might uncover who the dramatic one is too. After all, dramatic employees love intrigue and action. They thrive in days filled with shouting, tears, and betrayal: things that overly ambitious employees sometimes tend to provide.

Unlike the others, the dramatic employee is more like a character and can be dressed in many forms. He can be the emotional employee shouting his heart out one day and playing the sympathetic gossipmonger the next. He will do anything just to be the center of attention, up to the point of creating problems if no real drama is available.

4. The comedian

There are also times when an attention-grabber can come in the form of a comedian instead of a dramatic. You can say that they occupy the opposites of the attention spectrum. One thrives in tears, the other in laughs.

Honestly, wanting others to laugh is not bad behavior. A comedian’s intentions usually come from a good place and can make difficult workdays more tolerable. However, these employees tend to cause disruptions and make other employees lose focus.

You also need to be careful when dealing with them. Be discreet if you don’t want to be tagged as a killjoy.

5. The cynical

This type of employee is the bane of the comedian’s existence. This worker never smiles and always looks like he’s bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. He will also rarely participate in after-work bonding sessions, team lunches, and other fun company events. Other employees have consistently tried and failed to include him in things and now they have just given up.

He does his job well, keeps his head down unwilling to attract attention, and respects your authority. So what’s the problem? Simply put, a bad mood is contagious and can affect everyone else’s job satisfaction.

How to deal with difficult employees

There are definitely other types of difficult employees out there. It would be irresponsible to believe that they can neatly be clustered into just five types. However, the five that we did feature above are the most common.

What’s more important, though, is learning the techniques in dealing with difficult employees. Here are some steps that you can take. By the way, some of these tips are also according to Harvard Business Review:

1. Document each occurrence

The first thing that you need to do is to document the occurrences of disruptive behavior. For the sake of being fair, don’t forget to make the employee aware of what you’re doing as well.

Be sure to indicate the dates, key points of their behavior, and any necessary details (such as who were the other employees involved if there were any).

2. Give clear and constructive feedback

Don’t wait for multiple instances to occur before you provide your problem employees feedback. It may set an impression to all your employees that such behavior is tolerable, or worse, acceptable. It would also be best to talk to your employee as soon as possible. Don’t let things cool down too long.

More importantly, you should give clear and actionable items that the employee can work on.

Here’s a pro tip: Create a plan of action that includes a timeline and points of evaluation. Make two copies. Sign in together with your employee to make it official and give your employee a copy as a reference. This makes it easier for both of you to revisit the issue in the future and check if there’s any significant improvement.

3. Learn how to listen

Always keep in mind that two-way conversations will always work better than one-way discussions. Learn how to listen to your employees. Why are they behaving that way? Can you both find a middle ground? Work together to resolve the issue.

4. Be consistent and unbiased

If a certain behavior is not okay, then it’s unacceptable regardless of who committed it and when it is done. Allowing your employees to have certain privileges “every once in a while” can encourage your bad habits for the rest of the team, undermine your authority, and worse,  impact your credibility.

5. Set reasonable consequences

We understand how difficult it is to determine consequences that are appropriate for particular behaviors. Taking the number of occurrences and gravity of the offenses into account can help. You can also refer to the employee handbook to check if the company has already stipulated the appropriate actions to take.

6. Work with the management

Some cases can simply be too complicated for you to take on alone. Thus, don’t hesitate to consult your HR department when needed. After all, they are specifically trained to handle such situations.

7. Have courage

Finally, have the courage to follow through with the consequences you have set and even terminate an employee if necessary. Yes, one of the main objectives of this article is to find ways to refine your management style and improve employee behavior to create a happier and more productive team together. However, let’s be realistic.

There are times when that’s simply not possible. And who knows? You might just be giving this person a favor in letting him stumble to learn a lesson that might set him down the right path.

Examples of dealing with difficult employees

A lot of times, things are easier said than done. So allow us to share a couple of cases on how we handled employees in the past. We will be withholding the names of the people involved for the sake of privacy.

Case #1

There was an employee who started coming in late one day. He wasn’t like this before so the manager talked to him after a week. The manager also called his attention after just the third occurrence.

After interviewing the employee, we found out that his tardiness was caused by issues concerning his personal life. His mother got sick and there was no one to take care of her.

Temporarily taking some time off from work wasn’t an option as well. Instead, the issue was resolved by adjusting his work hours on the condition that he must never come tardy.

Case #2

A female employee complained that a male co-worker turned off the lights and touched her breasts. Upon investigation, it was found that the co-worker did graze her breasts unintentionally while turning off the lights of the conference room after a meeting.

The initial action was a warning for the male co-worker to be more careful next time. The incident was recorded.

A similar incident occurred after a few months with the same female employee, only this time with another male co-worker.  Another investigation was done. This time, it was found through CCTV footage that the female worker intentionally cornered her co-worker.

She was trying to use the issue to threaten him out of employment for personal reasons. This case was tagged as harassment, and due to the company’s zero-tolerance policy for it, the female employee was promptly terminated.


Dealing with different kinds of people to keep an organization running is both a science and an art. The secret lies in learning how to manage difficult employees, though, and making sure that they don’t disturb the established company culture. We hope that this article helps you in keeping your employees engaged and motivated. Good luck!

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Mike Abelson

Mike Abelson

This article is written by Mike Abelson. Mike is the Editorial Director at Lendza. He enjoys helping entrepreneurs and startups succeed through smart, innovative strategies.