An introduction to dealing with a challenging member of staff

Every business will come across a challenging member of staff at some point. Learning how to deal with the situation effectively is essential if you want to avoid a negative impact on the rest of your workforce.

A challenging member of staff can come in multiple guises.

There are employees who spend most of their working hours scrolling through Instagram or chatting with people in the kitchen – anything that doesn’t involve actually working. At the other end of the spectrum, you have staff who are too ambitious and convinced that they always know best. As a result, it’s hard to give them direction or feedback.

The most extreme example of a challenging member of staff is a toxic employee. Toxic employees exhibit an ongoing pattern of destructive behaviour. They’re particularly dangerous because of their impact on those around them – nothing destroys a culture faster than an abusive or aggressive individual.

A toxic employee might regularly blame mistakes on others, engage in harmful gossip or bully or demean co-workers.

A Harvard Business School study of more than 50,000 employees found that even relatively modest levels of toxic behaviour can lead to major organisational costs. This includes:

  • Loss of customers
  • Loss of employee morale
  • Increased staff turnover
  • Loss of legitimacy amongst important external stakeholders

This introduction will help you understand some of the causes behind challenging behaviour, where businesses go wrong and quick wins that can make a difference right now. Then, use our action plan to get clarity on your next steps.

Which factors lead to challenging staff behaviour?

Your challenging member of staff might be someone you’ve recently hired or an employee whose behaviour has declined over time. Here are some of the factors that can lead to difficult or problematic behaviour at work.

A rushed hiring process

Cutting corners with your recruitment is a fast-track way to find a challenging employee.

A good hiring process can effectively filter out people who are ill-suited to the role or a poor fit culture-wise. The questions you ask should probe into their expectations of the position and help you understand how they like to work and be managed.

Rushed recruitment can result in any number of problems. You might end up with a candidate who is underqualified, overqualified or suited to working in a way that’s completely at odds with your team.

This can make them disengaged and even resentful, which puts you in a difficult position as a manager.

Poor communication from management

Poor communication between managers and employees creates a breeding ground of confusion and frustration.

Staff want to feel like they’re part of the company and they have a voice that matters. Forgetting to inform them of important decisions or conveying sensitive information in an impersonal way (for example, emailing someone about redundancies) can damage morale.

If your employees believe that their presence at the company doesn’t matter, they may lash out or develop a lethargic attitude towards their work.

Personal problems

The causes of challenging behaviour can also be personal. Your employee could have problems with their health or personal relationships, which can lead to a poor work ethic, negative attitude and short temper with colleagues.

You can’t change their personal circumstances, but you can impact how they feel about coming into work. A supportive environment will make things more enjoyable for them and alleviate some of their stress. Conversely, a difficult or high-pressure workplace is likely to make things worse.

Rachael Corson urges business owners not to be afraid of having difficult conversations with employees

“Try to separate out the difficulties from the person. I read a lot of stuff where employees get labelled as ‘challenging’. That can be disheartening. How you frame it is quite important. We see it more as employees who have challenges, so you’re tackling it together. If you do have a difficult employee, you have to fire them quickly. Have clear expectations and don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations. We have a disciplinary procedure, everyone has read that.”

Rachael Corson, managing director of Afrocenchix

The cold hard facts

A study found that 69 per cent of managers often feel uncomfortable communicating with staff. Over a third (37 per cent) feel uncomfortable giving direct feedback on their employee’s performance if they think the employee will respond negatively.

The managers interviewed also struggled with recognising achievements, delivering the “company line” and crediting others with good ideas.

Common mistakes when dealing with a challenging member of staff

Ignoring the problem

Do you find yourself delaying difficult conversations with your employee or making excuses for their behaviour? If so, you’re ignoring the problem – which won’t do anyone any good.

Ignoring bad behaviour normalises your employee’s actions and can create problems in your team. If other staff see the employee “getting away” with a poor attitude or work ethic, they will start to believe it’s acceptable to act in the same way.

Making assumptions about your employee

It isn’t always easy to find the time to spend with staff one on one. But talking to challenging employees allows them to share their side of the story and explain any circumstances that are affecting their work performance.

They might be struggling with part of their role or feeling that their work isn’t valued after being overlooked for a promotion. The solution won’t always be a quick fix, but you won’t know where to start unless you speak to them.

Identify the root cause behind challenging employee behaviour

Follow our step-by-step action plan

Leading with your emotions

It’s frustrating to deal with the same issue over and over again, whether it’s lateness, errors or a poor work ethic. However, leading with your emotions is rarely a good idea.

It’s important to be able to put your feelings aside and be constructive when you’re talking to a challenging member of staff. A common mistake is to dwell on their past behaviour rather than focusing on how things can change.

Not documenting your process

Keeping a record of the steps you’re taking to deal with your employee is crucial for two reasons.

First, it’s hard to track progress if you aren’t sure what you’ve already covered. Keeping records allows you to set and follow up on targets, otherwise there’s no clear measure of progress.

Second, written records provide documentation of your process should you need to dismiss your employee. The records should demonstrate that the behaviour isn’t a one-off and you’ve repeatedly given your employee the opportunity to change. Documentation might include meeting notes, performance evaluations and peer feedback.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to frame feedback. Make sure you think about it from their point of view. You need to understand why they’ve done something and have they done it because you haven’t given them enough guidance? Opening the conversation and having that radical candour is hard at the beginning, but the quicker you get into it the easier it is.”

Liam White, co-founder of Dr Will’s

The cold hard facts

Harvard Business School estimates that keeping a toxic employee will cost an average company more than $12,000 (£8,870) a year – more than double the additional $5,000 (£3,679) of increased productivity that a good employee can provide.

Quick wins that can make a difference

Test candidate responses in interviews

Toxic employees can be intelligent and charming. There are some quick changes you can make to your interview process to filter out potentially challenging employees:

  • Ask about specific situations in the past. Concrete examples of past behaviour provide more insight than hypothetical questions like “What would you do if…”
  • Civility is a great test of character. Find out how they treated your receptionist or anyone they encountered during their visit. Were they polite and respectful?
  • Arrange for candidates to meet with their potential team mates. Candidates tend to relax more when they’re not in a formal interview setting and you can observe how they interact with other people

Give timely feedback

Are you giving timely feedback or do you wait until a monthly one-to-one to bring up problems? Making your feedback frequent and constructive will benefit both your employee and the rest of your team.

Timely feedback gives your employee a clear idea of what they need to improve. They can look at how they behaved in a specific situation while it’s fresh in their mind, rather than reflecting on it three or four weeks later.

Frequent feedback will also help to ease resentments in the rest of your team. You can nip bad behaviour in the bud, rather than letting it affect your staff over a long period of time.

Change the language you’re using

Harvard Business Review makes a great case for future-focused language when talking to an employee who’s made mistakes.

Dwelling on past mistakes with language like “What were you thinking?” will end with your employee defending their behaviour and you getting frustrated at their poor judgement. The conversation will likely go downhill after that.

Using future-focused language like “How will you do this differently next time?” makes the conversation positive. Rather than making your employee feel bad about what they’ve already done, they can demonstrate how they will change their behaviour.

Wessanen UK employs over 200 people, so HR director Ann Chambers has dealt with her fair share of challenges

“As a manager, it's important to be a role model for behaviours that are expected within the business. You need to be able to hold yourself and others accountable. Any expectations should be clearly communicated, explained and role modelled.”

Ann Chambers, HR director at Wessanen UK

The cold hard facts

No one likes giving difficult feedback, but tailoring it to your employees’ preferences will increase the likelihood of them responding positively.

Do they want immediate feedback or a scheduled meeting every week? Would they prefer an email or a face-to-face talk? Shape your method of feedback depending on how your employee’s preferences and how they respond.

Ready to put some ideas into practice?

Use our dedicated action plan to guide your next steps