If you’re wondering how to deal with difficult coworkers or employees, you’re not alone. Disagreements and personality clashes are inevitable when people spend time together. They can be exacerbated at work, when the stakes are often high, and pressure can take hold.
In a 2014 survey, 74% of employees said they had experienced conflict at work. Most were minor or “medium” disputes, but in 20% of cases, the conflict was “very serious”.
If it’s left to fester, this kind of conflict can have very negative consequences, both for you and for the company. Dealing with difficult employees can suck huge amounts of time and energy away from more important tasks.
And the problems can poison the workplace environment. In the same survey, 18% of employees reported that a “continuously hostile working environment” triggered the conflict.
In this tutorial, we’ll look at some effective strategies for managing difficult employees. We’ll look at how to identify problems and understand what you’re dealing with. Next, we’ll discuss some concrete steps you can take. We'll start with conciliation and negotiation. Then we'll move on to some more serious steps you can take if the first ones don’t work.
Most of the strategies are aimed at business owners or managers who are struggling to figure out how to manage difficult employees. But we’ll finish by looking at some specific tips for employees dealing with toxic coworkers.
1. Identify Difficult Workers
For a manager, the first stage of dealing with difficult employees is identifying the problem.
Sometimes, the problem is obvious, but sometimes it isn’t. You’ll need to build relationships and develop trust with all your employees, so that they feel comfortable telling you about any problems they’re having.
Listen carefully and observe the atmosphere in the workplace. If something doesn’t seem right, you may need to be proactive and try to identify the source of the negativity.
Another tricky issue is when you've got different employees complaining about each other, and you’re not sure who to believe. In that case, get both sides of the story and then proceed with a careful investigation. Avoid favouritism and keep an open mind. Get as many different points of view as possible, especially from employees who aren’t directly involved but may be impartial witnesses to what’s been going on.
2. Resolve Issues With Difficult Employees
When you’re clear about where the problem lies, you can start to deal with the difficult employee using the techniques below:
When you’re facing a problem, it can be tempting to wade in and try to solve it immediately. But when you’re grappling with how to manage difficult employees, going in all guns blazing probably isn’t the best approach. You could end up alienating the employee and losing the trust of others who think you’ve acted unfairly.
So, instead, schedule some time to talk to the employee, and plan to spend a good portion of that time listening. You want to be clear in communicating what the issue is. But you want to do so calmly and patiently, focusing on the problem without attacking the person.
Then allow plenty of space and time for the employee to give their side. You may be surprised to hear that they see things very differently, and that their point of view is also valid.
In addition to listening, you should also make other efforts to understand what’s going on. Talk to other employees to get their perspectives. Consider whether there are any issues either at work or outside of work that may be affecting the employee’s behaviour.
For example, let’s say the employee is causing problems in your weekly team meeting, getting impatient with coworkers and treating them disrespectfully. It would shed new light on the problem if you discovered that the employee has a new baby at home and is short on patience after a sleepless night, especially because your team meetings take place at 7 am.
3) Reach a Fair Resolution
Now that you understand the problem, it’s time to find a solution. Try to work with the person to come up with a fair solution.
In the example above, you could make it clear that snapping at coworkers is unacceptable but also say that you understand the mitigating circumstances. In this case, solutions like holding the meeting later in the day, letting the employee call in from home or agreeing on a flexible working schedule may be more appropriate than imposing draconian disciplinary measures.
4) Be Clear
We’ve been aiming to reach an amicable resolution in this section. We’ve tried to see things from the employee’s point of view and treat them respectfully. But that doesn’t mean that you need to avoid having a difficult conversation where necessary.
When dealing with difficult employees, it’s important to start off by standing in their shoes. But it’s also essential to be very clear about what you expect as a manager or business owner. You gave the person a chance to put their side, so now you need to take the opportunity to put your side. State what behaviour you expect and explain why it’s important. Then make a plan to monitor whatever action you’ve agreed on and follow up at a later date to assess how things are going.
3. Further Steps to Take
In most cases, the above steps will work. You’ll be able to resolve the difficulties and find a way of working together. It’s certainly best to choose the conciliatory route as a first option and stick to it wherever possible.
However, there may be cases where everything you try just fails. No matter how much you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and talk and negotiate in an attempt to find a fair solution, nothing works. The problems continue, and you despair of ever being able to work amicably with this person.
In those cases, you’ll need to go further. In this section, we’ll look at what other avenues are open to you. We’ll start with mediation.
1) External Mediation
If you’ve reached an impasse, it can be helpful to get an outsider to mediate. Having someone who’s not involved in the dispute can bring in a fresh perspective and suggest new solutions.
In a large company with a human resources department, the mediator could be someone from HR. In a smaller company, perhaps it’s someone else within the company that both of you trust and respect.
A great option is to bring in an external mediator. This is someone who is trained in dealing with disputes and reaching fair, amicable conclusions that are acceptable to both parties. Ask at your local chamber of commerce or industry association to find mediators in your area.
2) Disciplinary Procedures
Even if the business you run is small, you should have procedures in place to deal with difficult situations. You should have an employee handbook that details the kind of behaviour you expect from employees and the disciplinary process that'll be followed if people don’t live up to those expectations.
If the employee has violated that code of conduct, it’s time to put that disciplinary process in motion. It’s important to be transparent here and to make it clear which rules have been broken and why the discipline is justified. You don’t want to be seen as punishing someone unfairly for a personal dispute.
To learn more about setting up and following disciplinary procedures, see my previous tutorial on creating an employee handbook.
When all else fails, you may need to look at terminating the person’s employment. Needless to say, this is a last resort, and usually things won’t get this far.
If you do go down this difficult road, make sure you document everything carefully. Give the employee plenty of warnings and opportunities to rectify the situation. You’ll need to have actual grounds for dismissal, so again focus on the code of conduct and how the employee has violated it. If you fire someone purely based on a personal grudge, you may face legal problems.
For more on this, see section 6 of the following tutorial:
4. Tips for Coworkers
So far, we’ve been looking at things from the point of view of a business owner or manager dealing with difficult employees. But what if you’re a regular employee trying to deal with toxic coworkers?
Some of the ideas we’ve looked at will also work for you. For example, listening, understanding and communicating clearly are all effective for employees as well as bosses. But others won’t work so well—you probably don’t have the authority to call in external mediation or start disciplinary procedures, for example.
In this section, let’s look at some specific steps you can take as an employee who wants to know how to deal with difficult people at work. Or, if the difficult person is your boss, read this tutorial for advice:
When you’re stuck in an office all day every day with hostile coworkers, it can be tempting to suffer in silence, fuming about someone else’s behaviour but not tackling it head on.
Many of us don’t like conflict, so that’s understandable, but it’s generally not effective. Start by communicating clearly and directly with the problem employee, as soon as you can. Try not to sound angry or accusatory—this can just make things worse. Focus on explaining what's upsetting you and why and make a simple request.
Keep in mind the tips we covered earlier. Look at it from the other person’s point of view and try to understand where they’re coming from. Try to find a fair solution instead of forcing your viewpoint on the other person.
2) Minimise Contact
What if communication doesn’t work? Detachment is one option that managers don’t have, but it may be available to you as an employee. If someone is sucking up all your energy, spreading negativity or distracting you from your work, you can simply try to stay away from them as much as possible.
Get yourself assigned to a different team. Eat your lunch in a different place. When they come over to your desk, say you've got to run to a meeting or have an upcoming call.
It sounds a bit cowardly, and certainly it’s not the ideal solution for dealing with hostile coworkers. But if you’ve tried talking to the person without success, this option can be effective, especially in a larger organisation where it’s easier to avoid someone. It’s less likely to work in a smaller company or in a situation where you don’t have much choice about seeing the person. So another option is...
3) Build Alliances
The social dynamics of a workplace can be complex, and it’s hard to generalise about them. But one thing that’s usually true is that if you’re involved in a conflict or disagreement, it’s best not to be isolated. Having friendships and alliances with other workers can strengthen your position and discourage the other person from causing further problems.
It’s important to note that I’m not suggesting you complain about the other worker to your colleagues. That can be counter-productive, coming across as unprofessional to your coworkers and potentially inflaming the conflict. The idea of building alliances is to develop positive relationships that can strengthen your position.
You may want to ask someone for help and advice in dealing with the situation, but it’s best to leave names out of it if possible.
4) When to Go to the Boss
When you’re working with difficult people, you don’t want to burden your boss with every disagreement and problem you run across. If you complain too much about your coworkers, you risk being labelled as a problem employee yourself! It’s best to deal with things by yourself as far as possible.
If things go too far, however, it’s time to escalate the issue. Here are some signs that it’s time to talk to your boss:
- You've tried resolving the problem yourself and have run out of ideas.
- The person’s behaviour is seriously affecting your ability to do your job.
- You feel threatened or intimidated by their behaviour.
- The stress of figuring out how to deal with a hostile coworker is making you unhappy at work.
- You’re thinking about quitting or transferring to a different department.
5) How to Approach Your Manager
When approaching your boss, be careful how you raise the issue. It’s best to prepare carefully by documenting facts and examples of behaviour, with specific information on how it's affected your ability to do your job. Then give that information to your boss in as calm and professional a tone as possible.
The aim is to focus on the person’s actions and the consequences of those actions, instead of making judgments about their personality. It’s more effective and gives your boss clear information to work with.
To put it bluntly, your boss probably doesn’t care if you don’t like John. But if you can give specific examples of how John’s behaviour is affecting your morale or productivity, your boss will probably take it seriously and will be able to use the information you’ve provided to raise the issue with John.
Make it clear that you’re talking to your boss in confidence. Dealing with toxic coworkers is hard enough, and if word gets out that you’ve complained to the boss, it'll probably only make things worse.
Keep in mind, also, that your job isn’t over when you’ve reported the issue. Even if your manager can help, their intervention will probably not resolve things perfectly. It’ll just make the other person more willing to meet you halfway. You’ll still need to work hard at resolving the conflict yourself. Go back to the other techniques we’ve looked at in this tutorial and use them to create a more positive working environment.
Dealing With Difficult People at Work: Takeaway
Working with difficult people isn't something anyone enjoys, but it’s probably something you’ll have to face at some point. In this tutorial, you’ve learned some useful techniques for dealing with difficult employees.
We’ve seen how important it is to get clear on where the problem lies and then start with good-faith discussions aimed at resolving it amicably. We’ve looked at ways of making sure those discussions go well. And then we’ve covered steps you can follow if you need to take things further. Finally, we’ve looked at what employees can do to deal with toxic coworkers.
With these techniques, you can not only manage difficult employees, but also go a long way towards creating a more positive working environment. For more ideas, see the following tutorial:
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2019. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.