The problem with a difficult employee in a small business environment is that their negative impact is felt so much more than in a larger company.

Unless you have a trained and experienced HR employee or manager in your company, dealing with the troublesome “one” is your responsibility and it is important to deal with employee related issues promptly.

Unfortunately, difficult employees are unlikely to stick their hand up and confess up front that they have a mean streak and therefore should be watched.

Managing people is never easy and the more the company grows the more time and effort the owner and the function managers will need to spend on employee management.

Understanding your employees and what motivates or demotivates them is something only time and conscious observations will provide.

What is the problem?

The manner in which your attention is drawn to a problem will usually define how it should be addressed.

It is necessary to be able to differentiate between a once off niggle situation and a festering problem. Not everyone gets on with everyone else and that is only natural and should be expected. Even the most productive and harmonious team will have its arguments and differing opinions from time to time.

Resolving discontent between two employees may be as simple as placing a partition between their desks or allocating different work functions.

The real problem comes when a particular individual is continuously creating discontent and unhappiness throughout the company and your attention is drawn to the issue through numerous complaints from other employees.

How should this be tackled?

Two preliminary steps which should be considered.


It starts with recruitment. Use every method possible to try and ensure that each new employee does not only fill the job requirement but, in your best judgement, will fit in with the office temperament and vibe.

If the individual is going to work “for” someone get that supervisor in on the interviews. If the person will work “with” another employee, allow them to meet and spend some time together; possibly discussing the job. Get feedback.

Take your time with the appointment and get your senior folk to also participate in initial interviews and listen to their opinions.

Company HR policies

If you’re going to be the HR man, along with all your other tasks, you must become familiar with the Labour laws of your country and how they pertain to the management and disciplinary procedures for employees.

Make sure that your letter of appointment and orientation processes are documented and read and understood by the new appointees. Make sure they acknowledge their acceptance of these policies and procedures by signature on the LOA.


Argument with travel agent statute

Argument with travel agent statute

Dealing with the troublesome employees

As indicated above, make sure there actually is a serious problem and not simply a fabricated situation or a petty disagreement between two stressed out employees.

If there is more than one source of complaint, discreetly establish exactly what is causing the concern and unhappiness amongst the other employees.

Through my many years as a corporate functional Manager and a small business owner, I have come to the realisation that difficult employees fall into one or more of 3 categories.

Personal issues

Intentional destructiveness

Unintentional destructiveness

Personal Issues

These need to be handled with patience and sensitivity and often have nothing to do with the individual’s performance but rather that of co-workers. Let me explain by way of an actual situation back in my corporate days.

A young lady joined our typing pool (it was the 1980’s) in her first job. Unfortunately, personal hygiene was not one of her strong points and by mid-morning of each day, it became almost impossible for her colleagues to remain in the confined area for any length of time.

This resulted in a drop in productivity along with output.

The supervisor, spotting the drop in performance queried it with several of the senior typists who obviously explained the situation. Thanks to the maturity of the ladies, there was no public humiliation of the young lady but rather a discreet chat between her and the supervisor; a mother of two teenage girls.

The supervisor explained the problem to the young offender and even took her out shopping at her own expense. It turned out the young lady came from an extremely poor family where items such as deodorants and other toiletries were considered a luxury they could not afford. A happy ending for all concerned.

Intentional destructiveness

These individuals are easier to deal with as the results of their “difficult attitude” are more visible. This group can be further sub-divided into “non-performance” and “irresponsible conduct”.

Non-performance relates to the individual’s inability to meet pre-agreed performance criteria, goals and targets. The remedy for this non-performance depends on the cause.

If the offender is just too lazy then the usual “3 strikes and you’re out” disciplinary processes are put into motion- verbal warning, written warning and a second, final written warning.

And the unfortunate thing is, most managers get held hostage to these folks, spending a disproportionate amount of time, thought and emotional energy on them. Often hovering on the verge of letting them go for years, but never quite being able (for a variety of reasons) to pull the trigger. Erika Andersen

If the individual is found to be lacking in training or coaching then it is the responsibility of management to correct this omission. If this void is filled and the non-performance continues then disciplinary measures may have to be the next step.

When it comes to irresponsible conduct, the 3-strike remedy may not be sufficient. It may be necessary and legally acceptable to dismiss the individual immediately and in some cases, the company, or the victimised employee may even lay criminal charges.

Some examples include:

Theft and fraud


Sexual harassment





A small company’s reputation can often be formed by the response to a single problem by one… Click To Tweet


Unintentional destructiveness

These individuals are somewhat more difficult to deal with.

They could be good workers, conscientious and loyal and even in some cases, meeting their targets and commitments, but in the bigger picture, they are either disruptive to colleagues or detrimental to the company, or even both.

On the one hand, the employee may be shy, anti-social, unnecessarily meticulous, picky, indecisive, moody and just plain difficult to work with for no apparent reason.

On the other hand, he or she may be arrogant, obnoxious, impulsive, loud and aggressive. What to them sounds like a reasonable and calm response to a sales query could be perceived by the customer as a rude rebuke.

A small company’s reputation can often be formed by the response to a single problem by one employee.

Your personal brand is created through your action. At no time is your brand best present than in challenging times and dealing with difficult people. Remember what you want your brand to be and how you want your colleagues or customers to think of you. While the difficult person may never recognize your value, others who are involved or watching from the outside will. How to Effectively Deal With Difficult People

You will need to understand what the problem is and try and ascertain the root causes.

Your investigation may show that the individual is an over aggressive air-head that no amount of help will ever change and the disciplinary process is your only recourse;

The bad temper and surliness displayed in the work environment by an employee is a bad characteristic of the individual who may need help to overcome these hurdles. Alternatively, the reactions may be the consequence of non-performance by others in the process;

It may even be something you routinely do or say that is offensive to him or her and brings out the worst in them.

In the last 2 examples, it will take time, patience and plenty of mentoring and coaching and possibly even training from external resources to remedy the situation.

Don’t lose a great employee, who just happens to have several bad attributes or characteristics, as we all do, because you are too busy or lack the determination, to ascertain the facts and resolve the problems.

Images courtesy of Flickr

Featured image by mamchenkov

argument with travel agent statute


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