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Difficult Staff… and How to Deal with them


A square peg in a round hole
A square peg in a round hole


I was recently in a client’s office, and he mentioned a problem he has in his workplace. He has a ‘difficult’ member of staff. He asked for my advice.

The first point to make is that every manager will have at least one ‘difficult’ member of staff during his/her career. Indeed, having ‘only’ one is good luck. The ‘difficulty’ can be anything: poor communicator; not fitting into the team; gossip; disruptive; irritating; etc..

We are not talking about staff who are behaving inappropriately (e.g., bullying) or breaking a law (e.g., falsifying expense claims): these are disciplinary matters, and such matters require immediate, formal action. Similarly, some issues can arise from conflicting opinions or beliefs of employees: these opinions or beliefs are protected by discrimination legislation (e.g., sexual orientation or race).

We are talking about staff who are ‘misfits’: they just do not fit in to the company’s culture and colleagues’ work style, or there is a mismatch between them and their job, or they spend too much time irritating other staff.

‘Difficult’ staff fall into the general category of ‘bad hires’. If you have a large number of difficult staff you need to closely investigate your hiring and appraisal system. Bad hires are usually caused by hiring a ‘compromise’ candidate (rather than the best candidate), hiring too quickly to fill voids in a workforce, or not emphasising a company’s values during an interview (values are not negotiable, performance is). We cannot deal with the problem of ‘bad hires’ in this article: we will deal with the ‘difficult staff’.

Business drivers for dealing with the issue

Bad apple
Bad apple

There are two drivers to solve these issues quickly:

    • MANAGERS’ TIME: Managers can spend a lot of time on these misfits, and many managers feel the staff should be ‘let go’, but often do not have the heart to do it. A manager can often ignore the problem or move the staff to another unsuspecting manager. Also, managers spend many hours complaining to other managers about their difficult staff, rather than dealing with the issue. Managers who complain about their staff should not be managers. It can be worse… some managers criticise members of staff to other members of staff in their team. This is bad management, and – frankly – embarrassing. Good managers deal with problems quickly and fairly, and do not gossip about them.
    • STAFF TIME. Difficult staff present difficulties to both managers and other staff. They can waste staff time, or even stop work, with their behaviour. The performance of other staff can be adversely affected.
  • VIRUSES SPREAD: Difficult staff can create a bad atmosphere in the office as they are often unhappy and negative. Negative attitudes spread like a virus, and their bad behaviour may be mimicked by others creating poor morale and reduced productivity. It is definitely a case of ‘one bad apple…’

Analysis and Solution

We need a structured approach to sort out the issue:

  1. PROCESS. Companies will have procedures for dealing with most staff matters. Follow them.
  2. DATA AND DOCUMENT. You will need data to show there is an issue, and to resolve the issue. Always document these data, and document all discussions. This documentation is needed for all staff matters… good or bad. There will also be documentation processes and systems in place – use company procedures. Documentation is the most important step in this analysis.
  3. IGNORE THE ‘GRAPEVINE’ – ACT ONLY ON FACTS. You may have heard about the issue via the office/staff ‘grapevine’.  This grapevine can often be unreliable and opinionated. Establish the facts by first investigating the issue before talking to the member of staff.
  4. IS IT THE JOB? Managers can be to blame for ‘bad hires’. Have you hired the wrong person (not his/her fault), or put them in the wrong job (not his/her fault)? We all make hiring mistakes. This can be by talking too much during an interview (rather than listening), relying too much on education or a CV, or wasting time on stupid questions (‘where do you expect to be in 5 years…’!).
  5. IS IT ME? Managers can cause poor behaviour. Managers set standards, and staff will mimic these standards. If you are a poor communicator, you cannot criticise others for poor communication skills. Check that you are not the cause of a staff problem, or part of it, by asking ‘Am I guilty of the same sin?’.
  6. ISOLATED OR REGULAR? Is the bad behaviour an isolated case, or a regular occurrence? Everybody has a bad day.
  7. TALK. Talk to the member of staff, and ask if there are problems in his/her workplace. This requires honesty from both parties, and clear feedback from the manager. The bad behaviour may be caused by lack of motivation or confusion about job role. Managers often discover that a member of staff has problems outside his/her workplace that is affecting behaviour. The talking needs to be factual (no opinions, judgements, or rumours), positive, constructive, and optimistic.
  8. DEFINE THE PROBLEM. State clearly what the problem is, and remember to deal with the behaviour, not the person.
  9. AGREEMENT ON ROOT CAUSE. Agree with the member of staff that a problem exists, and reiterate the problem. If the problem relates to the workplace, you can resolve it. If the problem is outside the workplace you cannot resolve it. It is worth noting that sometimes staff are behaving badly due to work factors such as bullying: this would widen the issue, and change its focus.
  10. EXPLAIN WHY THE BEHAVIOUR IS WRONG. Explain why a behaviour is unacceptable in your workplace, and highlight the effects of this behaviour.  The member of staff may have always behaved in this unacceptable manner – it has been accepted or ignored by other companies. They may not know any other behaviour, or believe it is effective in their career.
  11. PLAN AND ACTIONS. Staff need a plan for resolution, and should be clear about actions they need to follow to rectify any issue, and any help you can offer. The key element of any recovery plan is for the member of staff to feel part to it, and in some control. The actions should be agreed by all parties. This will usually involve an agreed timeline.
  12. ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES. Staff also need to be aware of consequences of a failure to improve. Hopefully, they will improve, but if they do not…
  13. LETTING GO…  Managers hire and fire. Sometimes you have to ‘let staff go’. If you need to fire staff, ensure you have followed procedures and everything is documented.

And finally…

Downward trend‘Difficult’ staff can take up much management time – they are ‘time thieves’. They can be disruptive, and create a poor atmosphere in the workplace, and reduce productivity. They must be dealt with quickly and fairly, as they are a real cost to your company.

It is useful to review your hiring process if you have a large number of difficult staff: your workplace needs to be filled with competent people, with the correct values and standards (commitment, trust,
respect, etc.). Staff who do not, or cannot, fit this description should not be in your workplace.

And finally… not hiring bad staff is just as important as hiring good staff. Bad hires have more effect on your company performance than good hires. Their negative effect can swamp the positive effect of the good hires. Beware….

Good internet sources for dealing with ‘difficult’ staff:

NEXT MONTH: Dealing with ‘toxic’ staff… do you have a member of staff or colleague who is rude, domineering, selfish, or overly opinionated? A member of staff who is a bully (but clever at hiding this behaviour), loud, disruptive, or forming a clique that undermines company values? These are toxic staff: they may be very good at their job, but they are disruptive and bad for your company. We will talk about these staff in next month’s Blog on Mentoring and Coaching.

March 14, 2017

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About PHL

PHL is an engineering consultancy company, based in the UK. We offer consultancy in pipeline engineering, and present training courses and education programmes in pipeline engineering and management. We specialise in pipeline integrity consultancy (including defect assessment, risk management, and failure analysis), and in pipeline engineering training (onshore pipeline engineering, and pipeline integrity engineering). We also offer a wide range of coaching and mentoring services to staff on all levels.

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