Difficult employees come in many forms. They might be complainers, they can be negative and blame others, or be arrogant know-it-alls. They might be argumentative, bullies or even isolationist - but one thing all these personalities have in common is the burden they place on other staff.
More than half of working Canadians experience anxiety, irritability with co-workers, defensiveness, anger, mood swings and feelings of helplessness or of being trapped in work, according to the Resolution Skills Centre, based in Winnipeg.
"The number one challenge for leaders is not typically the business issue, it's the people problems," says Jeff Mowatt, a customer service strategist, professional speaker and author based in Calgary who specializes in improving employee behaviour.
Rhonda Scharf of On the Right Track Training and Consulting in Ottawa notes that labelling an employee "difficult" isn't a matter of someone having a bad day.
"It becomes a problem when someone is continually and chronically getting in the way of you living your life or doing your job effectively," says Ms. Scharf, a certified professional speaker. "They're the squeaky wheel in everything you do … and those who are like that continually and chronically can really kill an organization."
While the number of difficult people in a workplace is usually small, she says, the figures are rising.
"When you look at the statistics of harassment and bullying in the workplace, the number of lawsuits, stress cases … they are going up. It's because our society has changed. People have less respect than they used to - look at road rage. A lot of it has to do with the way we communicate - some people can get really rough on e-mail and voice mail. And look at TV, like Gordon Ramsay on Hell's Kitchen, and other reality shows. … People think it's okay to talk to people like that."
But all is not lost - managers and supervisors can avoid conflict and instead turn it into positive change:
Hire the right staff: When it comes to a customer service job, "hire attitude over aptitude," says Mr. Mowatt. In the interview, ask "How are you?" Do they complain about being tired or tell long stories about themselves, or do they say something positive and, in turn, ask the interviewer how he or she is? "All those answers will tell you if they are upbeat and focused on others," he says.
Keep the job interesting: Engaging staff and instilling teamwork can help motivate a difficult employee, Mr. Mowatt says, and keep co-workers less focused on the problem person and more on the common goal.
Charlene Guenter, co-ordinator of the Resolution Skills Centre, says: "A lot of time we find people are difficult because they aren't feeling they are part of things. In the end, the goal is to keep your employees and find ways to work with them and keep them engaged."
Do everything by the book: Ensure your organization has a policies that cover its expectations of employees in areas such as code of conduct, ethics, workplace violence, sexual harassment and use of company equipment and property. "Conflict resolution processes should also be part of your policy manuals so people understand" what happens if policies are contravened, says Ms. Guenter.
Attack problems quickly: Early intervention will help prevent an issue from becoming widespread and causing damage. Supervisors who wait too long before taking action may become frustrated and "less open to hearing your employee's side without being punitive," says Ms. Guenter. If problems aren't addressed swiftly, the employee may take it to mean it's acceptable - which can work against an organization in any wrongful dismissal suit.
Meet with no interruptions: Addressing issues should be done face to face, and at a time that is "safe" for both the supervisor and employee, says Ms. Guenter. Mr. Mowatt adds that a supervisor might say to the employee, "'Come by my office at the end of your day to have a chat.'"
Get to the point: To start out the meeting, avoid the "sandwich format - giving them good feedback, bad news, then good news," says Mr. Mowatt. "It tends to create distrust - the employee just waits for the shoe to drop." Instead, get right to the point.
Focus on observable behaviour: Be specific about the problem behaviour, and not attitude. Say something like, "'I'd like to speak to you about what happened yesterday, specifically about your attendance, or absenteeism,'" Ms. Guenter suggests. Mr. Mowatt adds: "Give them feedback on observable behaviour - for example, if a meeting started at 2:15 p.m. and they came at 2:30. You have to give concrete information, like, 'What can I do to help you arrive on time?'"
Instill trust and feelings of security: Ms. Guenter stresses encouraging employees to talk about their feelings instead of prejudging. So don't say, "'I notice you're always coming in late.'" Instead, "Ask, 'I am wondering about what it is causing you to be late to work every day,' and let the person speak about what's going on with him or her." "The employee will then feel this person cares about what's going on … and some sort of resolution can come out of that." Mr. Mowatt suggests starting out with: "You and I are going to be working together for a long time, and it's important to understand each other;" so the employee doesn't feel his or her job is threatened, which can create panic.
Ask only four W's, not five: When collecting information about the circumstances behind an issue, ask "who, what, where and when, but not why," says Mr. Mowatt. "The minute you ask 'Why,' like 'Why didn't you do this?' usually the answer is because 'I was stupid or incompetent.' You don't really want to go there. It's not constructive."
Document everything and follow up: Employees are becoming more aware of their rights, making it even more important to "document everything because the legal system does help difficult people keep their jobs," notes Ms. Scharf. Ms. Guenter stresses the importance of giving a timeline to follow up the meeting. "Say, 'I will follow up with you in two weeks' time and see if this is still a problem for you,' and ask the employee, 'Does that work for you? Are you able to meet the expectations we discussed?' That's a supportive conversation that also makes the employee accountable."
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