Difficult employee? Here’s how to manage them…

Do you have a difficult employee that doesn’t do what you ask them to do?

Maybe they’re not returning customer phone calls, not turning up to work on time, or not following company procedures. Behaviour which started as annoying has become untenable.

You’re frustrated and thinking, “I’ve asked them a thousand times! They just don’t care enough.”

Managing a difficult employee can be frustrating, especially when you feel like you’re constantly locking horns.

If you’ve had enough, before taking disciplinary action, ensure that you have communicated effectively what they’re required to do. True communication is what’s been understood, not what you think you’ve said!

Difficult employee, management

There are three reasons an employee may not do what you ask. They are:

  1. They don’t know what to do
  2. They don’t know why it’s important
  3. Yes – you guessed it – they just don’t want to.

Before making the assumption that they’re a difficult employee who just doesn’t care enough to do what you’ve asked, ensure you have given them everything they need to do the task.

Outline what’s required

Make sure the employee knows exactly what you require. You could include a description of the desired result, the best way to do it, the quality you expect, and the timeframe in which you want it done. For example:

“Bob, I’m not sure I communicated correctly what’s required. The end result we need is for the report to contain accurate information under all the headings listed on the contents page. You can get the information from each of the department managers. The report is usually around 20 pages long. We need it to have the formatting detailed in our style guide, and I expect a thorough grammar and spell check. It needs to be completed by 2pm each Monday for me to review before I issue it on Tuesday morning.”

Explain why it’s important

Then explain why it needs to be done the way you’ve asked. You might say:

“It’s important that the contents are the same each week as it provides consistency and allows us to compare the latest weeks’ results against other weeks. Grammar, spelling, and style are all important as it’s a reflection of our standards and professionalism. It must be to me by 2pm Monday or I can’t meet the Board’s deadline.”

The next step is to ensure they’ve understood what you’ve asked them to do, so ask them to repeat it back to you. You could say,

“Just so I can ensure I’ve explained that correctly, can you replay to me what’s required?”

If they leave out anything, such as deadlines, remind them what it is and why it’s important. Ask them if they have any problems doing what you’ve asked:

“Can you see any challenges that might stop that happening?” 

If they say they don’t know how to do something, go over it with them again or make a time to train them. If they need another explanation of what’s required, give one. It’s important that you and your employee are both confident they have all the skills and tools required to do the task.

Now it’s up to them…

Once you have their agreement, let them show you what they can do. If they continue to not do what’s required, you can have a discussion with them along the lines of:

“Bob, last week we discussed in depth what was required, and why it was important, and you committed to doing it, but it hasn’t been done. Can you tell me about that?”

If their reasons are valid, address them and help find solutions. If your employee says, for instance:

“I have two major reports due on the same day, and I’m not getting the information from the managers in time to collate them both by the deadline.”

…discuss with them ways to arrange their priorities to meet both deadlines, or if possible see if one deadline can be changed.

Enforce consequences

If they do what’s asked, they get to keep their job! If they continue to be a difficult employee and give you excuses, let them know that if the task isn’t completed as required next time you’ll have to assume that they just don’t care enough to do it, and you’ll have choice but to take appropriate action (for example, to give them a written warning). And make sure you follow through.

For more help managing your team, download our e-book: The Four Essential Habits of Effective Managers

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