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Human Resources

How to Deal with Difficult Employees: 10 Tips to Improve Workplace Performance

Clock6 min. read
byVexxit Staff onJune 08, 2021

Although having difficult conversations with employees may be uncomfortable, they are an inevitable part of people management. Get a practical guide that you can use as a framework for having difficult conversations with an employee.

Most of us would rather avoid having difficult conversations at work. After all, these conversations can feel awkward, stressful, or emotionally charged. However, if an employee is repeatedly late, frequently misses deadlines, disrupts other employees or regularly under delivers – avoidance will not improve these situations. Before it impacts your business or the team’s morale, it’s time to have a frank conversation. The longer you wait, the more detrimental the behaviour and the harder the conversation. Plus, you can bet your last dime that unless you speak up and do something about it, the behaviour isn’t going to change. 

Although having difficult conversations with employees may be uncomfortable, they are an inevitable part of people management. Whether the cause is related to performance, behaviour, or workplace conflict, it’s important to address these issues, implement corrective measures and support employees. We’ve put together a practical guide that you can use as a framework for having difficult conversations with an employee: 

Arrange a meeting

Once you’ve decided to have the conversation, arrange a meeting as soon as possible. Don’t put it off. Choose a date and time to hold the meeting. To avoid interruptions, schedule it at a convenient time in your day and during the employee’s scheduled work hours. If the meeting can be conducted in person, pick a place where you won’t be disrupted and one that allows for privacy. With the current COVID-19 restrictions, your only option could be a Zoom call between you and the employee. Once you’ve scheduled the meeting, notify the employee. When asking the employee to attend the meeting, let them know that you want to discuss performance or behaviour concerns. 

Prepare for the upcoming meeting and know your purpose

Before jumping into the meeting – prepare. Review the situation. What transpired or is transpiring? How does it affect your business or other employees? Look at the signs in an employee’s past and current performance. Is there a pattern? What has changed? Is the employee’s behaviour or attitude disruptive? You might have to speak with other employees who are directly affected or review previously reported incidents. Document your findings and have these examples available during the meeting. Once you have all the facts, figure out what you want to accomplish out of this conversation. Knowing your purpose will help guide your actions and keep you on topic.  

Be honest and open – don’t beat around the bush

As awkward as these conversations can sometimes be, it’s essential that you approach them confidently, openly and honestly. There is no point in being wishy-washy or vague. Before you begin, thank the employee for attending the meeting and restate why the meeting was called. Then, clearly, and calmly explain the issues that led to the meeting, using concrete examples. Be specific when identifying the issues and your concerns. Refer to the evidence you collected in Step 2 if necessary. Stick to the facts and refrain from accusing the employee in the meeting. Accusations or an accusatory tone can be intimidating and can lead to heated discussions where nothing constructive happens. Remember, your objectives are to correct the behaviour, help the employee make improvements and become a productive member of your team. 

Keep your emotions in check

Tensions can run high in these types of conversations. However, it’s neither the place nor the time to become overly emotional, unleashing pent up anger or resentment. As an employer, it is of utmost importance to keep calm. Your objectives are to outline, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the issues, your expectations and what you hope to accomplish from the meeting. If the employee becomes overly emotional – remain calm. Give them time to collect themselves before continuing the conversation. Keep your objectives in mind and reiterate them with the employee. When your focus is on your objectives and supporting the employee, you can avoid unproductive emotional outbursts. 

Let the employee talk and actively listen

Give the employee an opportunity to present their side of things and respond to the allegations made. There may be extenuating circumstances that you were unaware of that could account for their behavior or lack of performance. Listen carefully, acknowledge what they have shared and ask questions to gain clarity. Sometimes conflicts are rooted in misunderstanding, so it’s important to obtain feedback directly from the employee. You don’t have to accept or validate an employee’s rationale, but you do have to make them feel heard. You might also discover that your assumptions about behaviour were mistaken. 

Show empathy

There are always two sides to every story. Put yourself in the employee’s position to help you understand why they acted in a certain way or didn’t meet project expectations. Maybe they are dealing with personal issues at home, or they haven’t been given the training they need to successfully meet expectations. Whatever the root cause, showing empathy let’s the employee know you care. This may lessen their anxiety, making them more open to constructive and practical feedback. 

Review standards of conduct and performance expectations

Take the time to review your company’s standards of conduct and performance expectations with the employee. This will help them understand where they are falling short on performance deliverables or what they should be doing differently. It will also ensure that they can’t claim that the rules were unclear or that they were unaware of set performance expectations. It’s always a good practice to periodically review these standards and performance expectations with employees. 

Agree on a solution

Now that you’ve addressed your concerns, provided the rationale and set out standards, it’s time to turn your attention to resolution. Collaborate with the employee to develop workable and productive solutions. Studies have shown that when employees are engaged in actively developing the solution, they are more likely to accept it. Possible solution examples could include implementing a shift change or staggering start times, if an employee is routinely late – OR - if performance issues are problematic, consider adjusting their workload by breaking the job into more manageable components or reassigning portions of the job to another employee. No matter the solution, be sure to set objectives that include measurable goals and timeframes to track performance improvements. 

Offer support & resources

Offer support to help an employee improve performance such as on-job training or access to support resources like quick reference guides, process maps, mobile applications, an interactive learning portal, checklists, or other performance support tools. If the employee is facing challenges or scenarios that are beyond work performance, point them to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) where they can seek counselling support services confidentially.  

Schedule a follow-up

It’s important that once a solution is developed and plans are made, that you schedule follow-up sessions with the employee to assess how they are progressing. Let the employee know when (and how often) these scheduled follow-up sessions will occur. Consistent follow-up afterwards let’s the employee know that you intend to hold them accountable to the agreed upon plan. It also shows them that you are interested in their progress, not just their poor performance. 

Handling difficult work-related conversation isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to ensure a harmonious workplace where people adhere to a code of conduct and meet job performance goals and objectives. Shying away from these conversations is like living in denial, which can be detrimental to a team atmosphere and to the success of your business. By providing an employee with honest feedback, you give them an opportunity to correct performance deficits and modify behaviours. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts, there may be times when the employee’s performance isn’t improving or has gotten worse, and complaints are piling up. It’s time to cut all ties. Don’t spend time agonizing over the decision to fire an employee who refuses to conform to behavioural standards or performance requirements – it has to be done for the benefit of the rest of your employees and for your business. If you would like additional help with developing a framework for performance management Vexxit can match you with an HR consultant or leadership coach.

Find a Human Resources Consultant

Get help with developing a framework for performance management. Vexxit can match you with an HR consultant that best fits your needs.