Dealing with difficult employees

While a team of hardworking, capable staff can help a business thrive, it only takes one bad apple to wreak havoc within an organisation. We ask the experts how small businesses can tackle this common problem.

More than 50 per cent of employers in the UK are currently dealing with poor conduct, capability problems and grievances, according to an extensive survey by HR magazine Personnel Today and law firm Halliwells. What’s more, three-quarters of the HR professionals questioned consider so-called awkward employees a ‘lost cause’ and almost a third had engineered the dismissal and redundancy of a difficult individual without attempting to address the issue – a risky strategy in these litigious times.

‘Engineering the dismissal of a difficult employee is a dangerous practice which exposes employers to costly and time-consuming legal claims that can have a lasting effect on an organisation’s reputation,’ warns Guy Guinan, employment partner at Halliwells.

Extreme examples

Problems caused by difficult employees are routinely underestimated by business owners, often being attributed to mere personality clashes or even ignored altogether simply to avoid confrontation with key staff. This is particularly the case in issues such as bullying. In the Personnel Today and Halliwells survey, topping the list of employees who give the most headaches came the bully and the liar, while easily the most commonly cited was the moaner – someone who perpetually complains about petty issues such as lighting or heating, taking up excessive company time and demoralising colleagues.

Other problematic types named in the survey included the ‘personal hygiene sufferer’ (causing problems for a worrying 60 per cent of respondents), the ‘sex-site surfer’ and the ‘office Romeo’. Some of the more specific and startling examples given in the research included an employee lying about having cancer, an employee allegedly providing sexual favours to colleagues on company property, and even one employee who was assessed by a therapist and identified as a dangerous psychopath.

Shooting for the moan

Compared to these extreme examples, moaning employees may seem merely a minor inconvenience, but Guinan explains that any ongoing negative behaviour must be dealt with head-on as the knock-on effects can be disproportionately severe.

‘You can look to restrict employee behaviour for the good of the business,’ he explains. ‘While you don’t want to prevent people venting opinions, it should be through the proper formal channels as defined by the employer. If someone’s perpetually negative actions are dragging down commercial performance, it needs to be addressed.’

Ways to tackle the problem

  • Before any time-consuming formal proceedings are undertaken, an informal chat explaining the problem to the individual can work wonders.
  • Highlight why such behaviour is a problem. In cases such as the office moaner or the personal hygiene sufferer, they may well be unaware that such behaviour has consequences for the company – though the surfer of dubious sex websites can’t really use that excuse!
  • Make sure you have set up formal procedures to deal with difficult employees. Official measures should be detailed in employee contracts and all staff should be made aware of company policy.
  • Establishing a solid recruitment policy and detailed screening process can also reduce the risk of problems further down the line. After all, the easiest way of dealing with potentially dangerous or commercially damaging employees is not to hire them in the first place.

See also: Crucial aspects of employee management – Here are some key tips to getting the most from your staff.

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for our sister website when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence...

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