Managing Difficult Employees – Acknowledge, Approach, and Assess

In a perfect world, your employees would work together in perfect harmony, and your company would be smooth sailing. But if you’ve got an unhappy or disgruntled employee on board, managers must act immediately. A bad attitude can be contagious, and before you know it, you might wind up with a mutiny on your hands. How can senior managers quickly and effectively neutralize any threats to an otherwise satisfied crew? Managing difficult employees is no easy task. Once you’ve spotted an employee who might be causing problems within your organization, it’s time to Acknowledge, Approach, and Assess.

Handling Difficult Employees


Define “difficult.” Everyone has off days, and different employees have different working styles. Not everyone is a Sunshine Susan, radiating happiness and warmth, but that doesn’t mean that other coworkers should be penalized for having a “bad attitude” just because they’re more relaxed or quiet. During the hiring process, you should take into account your corporate culture.

If being greeted by a staff of smiling, enthusiastic employees is of paramount importance, then look for these kind of candidates. But if you employ a more personally diverse workforce, then there’s no sense in punishing some employees for not exuding the same enthusiasm as their colleagues.

When identifying “problematic” employees, look for long-term signs of unhappiness, or patterns of disruptive behavior. Difficult employees may:

  • Constantly arrive late or leave the office early
  • Ignore or push off deadlines
  • Seem distracted at the office
  • Waste time during work hours (surfing the internet, using their mobile phone, excessive socializing)
  • Treat coworkers rudely or disrespectfully
  • Avoid office social events
  • Act out during meetings
  • Gossip or complain about management

If this employee falls directly under your supervision, proceed to the next step. If the employee reports to a manager above or below you, direct your concerns to the proper supervisor.


To find out what’s causing the employee’s unacceptable behavior, request a meeting. Handle this directly, but briefly. If you are overly aggressive or accusatory in your approach, this could cause your employee to react defensively. Rather, keep the initial conversation short: “Hi Wolfgang, I was hoping you would be free to chat. Do you have some time to meet with me this week?”

If the employee has acted overly aggressive and given you a just cause for concern, then aim to make the meeting direct and professional. But if you suspect that their issues are stemming from something more easily rectifiable, you can opt for a more relaxed lunch meeting, or a chat over coffee.

Go into this discussion with an open mind and an open ear. Try to start openly and casually by asking about their performance and their feelings about the company. Allow them to lead the conversation. Pay careful attention to their tone and behavior as they speak. Do they seem withdrawn? Skeptical? Depressed? Demotivated?

Next, after carefully processing their thoughts, you can mention your concerns about their recent behavior. Prepare concrete examples of the problems: “Well, Wolfgang, I wanted to speak to you to make sure you were happy here at ABC Unlimited. Recently you’ve been coming in much later than agreed upon in your contract.

It also came to my attention that you’ve missed the last 3 department meetings, and I wanted to hear if there were any factors or circumstances on your end that might be causing these issues.” Remind your employee that they are valuable to your organization, and that you want to work with them to find a solution, not against them.

Give them the chance to explain or clarify these issues, and end the meeting by mentioning that if they would prefer to talk to an HR manager, they are welcome to arrange a meeting. If an employee is dealing with something more sensitive in nature – an ill family member, a difficult break-up, etc – they may feel more comfortable discussing with HR than with their manager.


Good employees are valuable to an organization, and an engaged, motivated employee is hard to replace. So after your initial meeting, it’s time to consider their feedback. If a previously productive employee now feels demotivated because they were passed over three times for a “guaranteed” raise, it may be worth offering a pay increase.

If a talented employee is struggling with illness, consider the corporate healthcare plan and if your organization can offer any other alternatives. But if an employee responds aggressively, or seem indifferent to your concerns, perhaps it’s time to let them go. Think about their performance in the past, if this is a recent trend or a constant habit, and how easily they can be replaced. Then you can establish a plan of action.

For valued employees with external factors or simple solutions, like the pay raise or the healthcare dilemma, meet with the relevant colleagues (someone from accounting, the HR manager), and figure out a compromise. Meet with the employee to discuss these options.

But for those difficult employees who require more help in the workplace, work with an HR manager to come up with an action plan to address the behaviors that need to change. Schedule a follow-up meeting, and explain the steps that the employee can take to improve their performance. Discuss a timeline, and the potential consequences if these steps are not taken. Then give this employee a chance to adjust their attitude.

To keep your team on track, stay involved in your department’s daily happenings and work on building a rapport with your staff. For more tips for senior managers, read here and learn how to lead your team to success.

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