How to handle a difficult employee

Nóra Cashe

October 18 2023

First published: October 18th 2023
Last updated: October 18th 2023

Most business owners need to employ staff to provide the service or goods they provide.

Depending on how thorough your recruitment process is, you should be able to identify people that are a good fit for both your business and the role in question.

Staff are human however and your management team may encounter certain ‘difficult’ behaviours from time to time that will need to be addressed.

Dealing with an employee who has a poor attitude or an employee who is disruptive is one of the most challenging HR scenarios for small business owners to manage.

Common issues with difficult employees

One of the most common issues that managers encounter with difficult employees is poor performance. If colleagues have to pick up the slack, one employee’s poor performance can lead to resentment and more widespread productivity dips across your business.

Managers should also be quick to engage with an employee who develops a pattern of withdrawing or being uncooperative. If you don’t take immediate action, an employee with a poor attitude may struggle to maintain positive relations with colleagues and clients.

Another telltale sign of a disengaged employee is failure to respond to feedback or take responsibility for their actions. The longer you let this type of scenario persist, the harder it becomes to turn the situation around.

To ensure you don’t make a challenging situation worse, let’s take a look some effective HR strategies for managing difficult employees…..

Identify the problem

The first thing to do in these circumstances is to find out the reason the employee is becoming difficult to manage.

If you don’t know why the employee’s performance has deteriorated, you won’t know how to start addressing the problem. A work problem will need a different response to a personal problem.

A work problem could be solved with further training or a mediation if there has been a falling out with a colleague.

If the employee has a problem at home, some time off, flexible work options or another form of workplace support could go a long way to helping the employee resolve their concern.

If you demonstrate that you’re prepared to support your staff, you will likely receive their support in return.

Consider if the employee might be better suited to a different role

After meeting with the employee, you may discover that offering a move to a different role might improve their attitude.

Was the employee promoted to a more senior role? It’s possible they are not enjoying the extra responsibilities that come with their promotion. If it’s feasible, consider offering to return the employee to the role that they were performing well in.

This step would also help you demonstrate that you explored all options before considering dismissal if that’s ultimately the decision you have to make.

Does the employee have good incentives to perform?

If employees are proving difficult to manage, you may need to revisit your benefits package.

Are your employees receiving an appropriate level of pay, bonus schemes, and annual leave as part of their employment?

If your pay and benefits don’t provide sufficient motivation for employees, you may need to make changes to encourage them to improve their performance.

Performance improvement plans

If your meeting with the employee identifies work-related areas that need improvement, it’s a good idea to put a performance improvement plan in place.

This plan will set some goals for the employee to work towards within a certain timeframe.

Ensure to meet with the employee for regular check ins to evaluate their progress and identify any issues that might help them achieve their improvement goals.

Is a capability procedure necessary?

If an employee’s not responding to feedback, you may need to consider a capability procedure. This procedure should be set out in writing in your Employee Handbook and it’s important that you follow the precise steps that are contained in your company policy.

A typical capability procedure includes the following steps:

  • Investigation/evidence gathering – you will need evidence to present to the employee demonstrating why their performance is not meeting the standards required by your business.
  • An informal meeting – you need this meeting to precisely identify why the employee is struggling and to take appropriate action.
  • The capability meeting – if the informal meeting identifies work-related issues that need further attention and the employee fails to address these issues within a specified timeframe, you should arrange a formal capability meeting. This meeting should find an agreed way forward to improve performance. This could include further training or supervised work.
  • Warnings – if the employee’s performance continues to fall below your agreed standards, a formal warning might follow. The warning should be clear that failure to improve may lead to further disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

If you do dismiss an employee on the grounds of capability, you need to be sure that you arrived at that decision after efforts to turn the situation around.

If an employee makes a claim of unfair dismissal against a dismissal related to their capability, the WRC will typically ask the employer:

  • - Did you believe that the employee is incompetent to carry out the job?
  • If so, did you have reasonable grounds to sustain that belief?

To answer the second question to the satisfaction of a WRC Adjudication Officer, you will need evidence demonstrating that your decision to dismiss was preceded by a capability process that complied with the rules of natural justice and fair procedures.

Not sure how to handle difficult employees?

No time to handle difficult employees?

Running a business doesn’t leave much time to handle tricky employee situations.

If you need help with a difficult employee, call one of our HR experts today on 1800 719 216.

Irish employment law provides employees with strong legal rights and it’s important you handle this difficult scenario correctly to avoid the risk of employee claims.

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