How to Deal with Difficult Employees

You imagined the freedom of being your own boss is exhilarating, didn’t you? You started your own business with the thought that you wouldn’t have to deal with jerk co-workers and bosses. When I use the term “jerk” I am referring to toxic attitude/behavior or incompetence… or both!

True, you don’t have to deal with the jerk boss, but since you are the boss, guess what? You are in the unenviable position of dealing with a jerk employee. Or not. You can let things slide and avoid having to deal with the situation, but chances are that employee will drag everyone else down or even drive them out. Remember the days you were an employee and the lazy co-worker you had to pick up the slack for during a huge project? Or the manager that belittled you to the point of jumping ship? And no other manager was immediately stepping in to support you? Yes, you’re well aware of the dangers of letting things snowball down a steep hill, plus it takes up too much of your time and mental energy.

You also think if you discipline the employee, you’re probably going to be perceived as a jerk boss. Nice, huh? Even if you have an experienced manager or HR person handling employee issues, their main capacity is to serve as a witness and you will still need to head those dreaded meetings especially if it comes down to terminating an employee.

Before you start wondering what you did in a past life to deserve this karma, let’s change up the traditional thinking on disciplining employees.

The old-fashioned escalation of consequences: progressive discipline (punishment)

Progressive discipline is a euphemistic name for what I nicknamed Dante’s Inferno 2.0: The Four Levels of Employment Hell. It’s characterized by a series of three meetings using a negative, threatening tone while explaining the problem which carries increasingly severe consequences and eventually culminates into the fourth meeting terminating the employee. Here’s how it generally goes:

  • Identify problem behavior to employee during a “corrective action” meeting.
  • Tell employee to cut it out/step up without much guidance on how to do that.
  • Document the conversation in your own records and if it’s the second meeting, document it in writing for both parties and include “failure to correct blah blah blah… may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination” verbiage.
  • Tell employee, “Sign here.”
  • Second meeting: Go back to first bullet point and start again.
  • Third meeting: Suspension.
  • Fourth meeting: Termination.

That’ll show ‘em. Umm, no. Deep down you know it’s like telling someone to calm down in the middle of a heated argument which tends to have the opposite effect. (Just try saying that to any teenager.)

The employee might actually shape up for a bit, and in a few cases it might work. But as you’ve likely observed before, chances are the undesirable behavior will creep back in. The behavior might change but the motivation to change isn’t coming from a true desire to take responsibility and improve. To be fair, if you were on the receiving end, would you have a cheerful outlook on your job if you were threatened with losing your job?

Then what? A second disciplinary session, maybe suspension for the third and final written warning, and then hasta la vista, baby? To add insult to injury, this (ex) employee writes up a lousy Glassdoor review three years later calling you a jerk boss.

If there was a different and more positive approach with a higher chance of sustained improvement and increased mutual respect, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

Progressive approach: coaching

Coaching involves active participation by the employee. It doesn’t pit manager against the employee and the employee is treated with respect, not threats. It takes the approach of making a positive assumption that the employee will want to resolve the problem: Now, most employees would want to stop doing the things that drag everyone and everything else down. Often, the employee may not even be aware of the effects on others. It’s fairly simple, actually:

  • Describe problem with examples and then describe how it impacts the rest of the company and its employees. Start your private conversation with, “I noticed…” instead of “You are…” so that it doesn’t seem like finger pointing.
  • Discuss goals and potential solutions as a coach on the same team.
  • Offer encouragement and help to overcome barriers to the employee’s success. You never know what might be happening behind the scenes with the employee’s personal and professional life.
  • Meet on a different day to discuss progress. If the employee doesn’t eventually improve to the level of performance that the company requires, then it is probably best for the employee to move on.

When coaching the employee, it might be hard to be encouraging when you’re grinding your teeth into powder out of frustration, but you have to remember this is a person with a life outside of the work setting… a real live person with friends, family, personal issues, etc. Focus on the problem, not the person.

Ask if the employee sees the situation the same way you do to help you both get on the same page. Don’t use subjective phrases like “attitude problem” because it sounds so personal, judgmental and vague. Definitely not helpful. Don’t believe me? Tell those teenagers I mentioned earlier that they have an attitude problem and watch the eye rolling commence.

If it does come down to terminating employment, make sure you have a witness like a manager or preferably an HR person. You might want to give the employee the option to resign. (Check with your legal counsel and government resources to make sure you are in compliance with employment laws specific to your workplace location.) Make it short, to the point and make sure you don’t give the impression that your decision is not final.

Keep in mind that you may get the eye rolling no matter how encouraging you are as some employees just won’t change regardless of approach. They might be a Negative Ned and be super sensitive to the slightest correction, then twist your words around to sound like you were a bully and still end up calling you a jerk boss on Glassdoor.

But that’s okay. Just make sure you preserve their dignity by keeping information confidential, even if your name is being dragged on social media. You knew being your own boss was going to be a challenge in ways you didn’t expect, but if it was easy, everyone would run their own business, right?