Best of HR Roundtable: How Do You Handle Difficult Employees?

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Nov 12, 2015
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: TLNT has been publishing Steve Browne’s popular recaps of the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati for more than five years. For two weeks, we’re bringing back some you might have missed.

Why not start the year tackling a subject that’s near and dear to HR hearts? We decided to kick off the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati by talking about … “difficult” people!

Ironically, whenever this topics is discussed the fingers seem to always point out to others, when we may be the “difficult” ones ourselves. The three questions the small groups tackled at our January session were:

  1. What makes an employee “difficult?”
  2. What do you do if the difficult employee is a performer?
  3. How do we reduce the ability for employees to be difficult?

We had a smaller group this month since we met the first day back to work after the holidays, but it was a very engaged group. They had some really solid discussions which led to some great responses. Check them out!

What makes an employee “difficult?”

  • Employees that challenge the status quo. Dig this answer! I love it. This was a great, honest way to kick-off the forum. We don’t like people who push either for, or against, the norms of the company. It was interesting to see that people who may lurk, or live outside, the status quo could be tagged as difficult.
  • Employees who feel entitled. This was also interesting because when this answer was given, you could feel real venom about it from the group. The general sentiment was that when employees exhibit a behavior of entitlement, it rubs people the wrong way. No one had a good response on how to tackle these folks, they just didn’t appreciate it when they encountered it in the workplace.
  • Employees who make others unproductive. This is so hard to gage because every employee has times when they are unproductive. You’ll see people surf the web, wander the halls, having small talk with others. This response was about when those things take on a life of their own and are abused. Everyone owned up to the fact that we seek down time, but it wasn’t cool with them to have people pull others away from work.
  • Employees unwilling to change. It’s so funny to hear this because few people handle change well. The point was when you work with someone who flat refuses to move when changes are going to occur anyway. Someone who is like the office mule is only an obstacle in the end.
  • Employees who are bored. Now, whose responsibility is this? Is it the employee who needs to make sure they’re challenged, or is that a leadership/management issue? You’ll hear arguments on both sides of this debate. The reality is that when you do have bored employees, they will fill their time with something — and still get paid for it.
  • Employees who are soul suckers. Isn’t this a great term? Wouldn’t you love to write that on someone’s evaluation? Be honest. When you have someone who is constantly draining of time, emotion and effort, it’s hard not to think they’re difficult. This isn’t to say that all employees will go through patches of time when they’re more “takers” than “givers.” However, these folks NEVER give. They only leave you as an empty shell.

What do you do if the difficult employee is a performer?

The group really struggled with this question because the fact is that most companies will tolerate some pretty awful behavior if an employee is bringing positive results in. HR rarely stands up against this, and therefore, it allows difficult people to thrive.

Allowing this to occur is more than just “looking the other way.” It becomes a culture issue. If employees who aren’t seen as difficult see that awful people can get their way as long as they produce, the morale of the whole will suffer.

Swing back to the “challenging the status quo” comment from earlier. This is different because the status quo in companies should always be challenged to make sure that it supports a constructive environment where employees can perform. If this kind of “difficult” person exists, and they are a performer as well, you have a different situation.

A great reference to this type of person who challenges the status quo just came out in the Fast Companyarticle: This is Generation Flux – I recommend that you go online to and check it out!

How do we reduce the ability for employees to be difficult?

  • Change the rules. HR needs to learn how to explain that policies and procedures are truly parameters vs. a list of do’s and don’ts. If you have people who continue to be difficult, you have quite a bit of room within most policies and procedures to be broad rather than narrow. Don’t live in the world of black/white – thrive in the world of gray! If you have room to move, you can be adaptable to handle people where they are.
  • Give people context. Don’t let people continue to live on stereotypes, judgements or absolutes. Give people the “why” of what you’re doing and it lessens the chance for people to go to extremes. If they still do, you’ve given them the context on which decisions have been made.
  • Allow people to ask “why?” We don’t work in Gulags, so we should quit trying to form environments which try to limit vs. encouraging people to grow and explore. Asking “why” is healthy. HR should do it more often. If you do this, you’ll see Employee Relations improve.
  • Be consistent. This is the hardest thing in the world for HR to do. We strive to be “fair.” It’s not possible because fairness is defined by the other person(s) involved. If you are consistent in your approach, you take time to listen and then you are timely in your actions you’ll hit consistency and be more fair than you’ve ever been before!

The New Year started out in a spectacular fashion and this Roundtable set the stage for the ones to come in the following months.

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.
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