Handling difficult employees: A step-by-step guide

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Difficult employees

Bad employees are relatively easy to deal with: gross misconduct is usually obvious, leading to disciplinary action which may result in a fair dismissal.

Difficult employees are difficult because there is no gross misconduct, no obvious failure to meet performance targets, just a sense that this employee could or should do better. Their name keeps coming up in negative conversations. Eventually you have had enough, and you call Simply Communicate and tell us you want to fire the employee.

We usually have bad news. Our first question is, ‘What have you done?’

And the answer is usually, ‘Nothing really. I’ve moaned at him, but I was hoping he would improve.’

And this is the bad news: the process of dismissing a problem employee does not start when we have had enough. It starts the first time an employee fails to meet a standard of performance or conduct. Dealing properly with each infringement, however small, means that either the employee responds and reforms or, when you call Simply Communicate for help, you have a full file and a solid case.

In the beginning

Clarify your goals/aims (what we want to achieve and why they are important)

Clarify values (how we get there)

Clarify behaviours and performance standards (what we expect the employee to contribute)

And keep talking about them. If something is important, make sure your team knows it’s important. Get them talking about what you are talking about, and keep them talking.

What to do every day/week

  • Recognise good and exceptional performance. Let them hear that you are interested in their achievements and that you do notice.
  • Talk to the employee whenever there is any failure in behaviour or performance, however minor. Ask what happened. Show interest not anger. If necessary, refer to the behaviours, goals or values you have been talking about.
  • Refer to previous discussions. If this is repeat behaviour (e.g. absenteeism) ask what is going wrong, and what help the employee needs.
  • Get agreement from the employee on the next step.
  • WRITE IT DOWN. Put as much detail in your diary or journal as you can: what the employee did well or what went wrong and what you agreed.

Why it’s important

  • Because when you look for positive behaviour, you are encouraging more of the same.
  • Because when you finally want to pull the plug, you can call Simply Communicate with all the evidence required.


Let’s talk about how Simply Communicate can help with your people problems: training, consulting and disciplinary enquiries. 


Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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