Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Managing Difficult Employee Behaviors and Getting Results

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 11/27/2020

manager thinking about an employee's behavior

Table of Contents

Everyone brings their own strengths and weaknesses to their job. Managing difficult employee behaviors may require more of an effort, which can be a drain on company resources. While the traditional advice of documenting conversations in case you need to terminate employment is valid, it's important to think beyond that worst-case scenario. When faced with challenges, most employees want to persevere and succeed. As a manager, your initial goals should be addressing performance or behavior issues and finding a way for all employees to contribute positively in the work environment.

Identifying Problematic Behaviors in the Workplace

Certain behaviors in the workplace can become problematic, which leads to negative consequences for both individuals and teams. Some issues managers should look for when identifying potential behavior issues include:

  • Lack of responsiveness to managerial requests
  • Insubordination
  • Bullying coworkers which may cause unnecessary fear or anxiety
  • Spreading gossip
  • Overall poor work quality

Solutions for Dealing with Difficult Employee Behaviors

Managers confronted with difficult employee behavior should follow procedures and strategies provided by company leaders, executive management, or Human Resources. Difficult behaviors can disrupt the work environment, making it imperative for managers to maintain a calm demeanor and follow through on proper documentation of issues. Human resource professionals should be prepared to step in when needed. Company-wide efforts may include:

1. Focus on Hiring the Best Candidates

Improved hiring strategies can be used to help avoid the need to devote significant resources on managing difficult employee behaviors in the future. Companies should start by examining the hiring process. Invest in recruiting by developing a process to identify the best candidates for each job. In this way, you may be able to recognize the signs of difficult employee behaviors ahead of time. Ask interview questions that help you gain a better understanding of the individual's work ethics and explore how a candidate would handle difficult situations or interpersonal conflict at work. Reference checks and other background screening services where legally permissible can help you feel more confident that you're hiring qualified candidates and candidates who will fit in well with your existing team.

2. Listen and Ask Questions

The first step managers should take when dealing with an employee facing challenges is to ask questions and listen. An unhappy employee may be acting out for a variety of reasons. For example, an employee who recently relocated for a role might be underperforming and stressed. An open discussion might reveal that the issues at work are related to personal challenges and difficulty getting settled. Managers should be prepared to connect employees with resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Brainstorming additional solutions, such as offering opportunities for a new employee to become involved in the community could also help address a larger problem. During any work discussion, managers should listen for employee cues such as:

  • Unhappiness with the position.
  • Challenges with management or colleagues.
  • Skills-based gaps that could be addressed with training.
  • Outside issues that could be impacting performance.

3. Develop an Improvement Plan to Provide Employees the Opportunity to Succeed

One reason an employee may underperform is because they may not be suited to their position or a barrier is getting in the way. Once you've identified their challenges, find ways to provide opportunities that better align with their strengths. For example, perhaps an employee would thrive on a different team within the company. If work hours are an issue, you may be able to offer an adjusted schedule. Looking for ways to shift the employee's experience – within the context of the work they need to deliver – could help them be more successful. Building an improvement plan based on an employee's strengths might give a staff member dealing with challenges a better opportunity to shine.

4. Create a Roadmap with Short-Term Wins

Difficult employee behaviors may stem from an employee's unseen stressors. A struggling employee who is trying to get back on track may become overwhelmed. Consider the case of someone who is perceived to have a poor attitude, such as complaining about tasks or failing to contribute at team meetings. In truth, they may feel overwhelmed by their current responsibilities, but afraid to admit it. In these cases, an improvement plan might include very manageable, small steps that add up to big changes, such as keeping interactions positive on a day-to-day basis with management or participating once during each team meeting. Setting clear, manageable goals with some short-term wins sets the stage for employees to feel like they've accomplished something and are committing to improving their behavior.

5. Focus on Creating a More Supportive Work Environment

When managing difficult employees, you may find that the work environment can be negatively impacting job performance. For instance, if a good worker has a poor relationship with their manager, their performance might go downhill. In other cases, there can be a mismatch with the team dynamics. Frustration can mount, which will have a negative impact on day-to-day interactions. Encourage those dealing with difficult employees to take a step back and be mindful of their own behavior. Don't rush to assume the worst of an employee or passively complain to others. Instead, face challenges head on. Management teams should make an effort to create an environment that supports even the most challenging employees.

6. Use Progressive Discipline

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to coach and support employees, situations reach the point where difficult behaviors or bad performance necessitate disciplinary action. In these situations, progressive discipline can be used to help document the steps being taken as well as reinforce the seriousness of the situation with the employee. Typically, this process starts with a verbal warning and progresses to a written warning, suspension, a final written warning, and ultimately termination. However, the severity of the employee's conduct may warrant bypassing one of more of the progressive discipline steps. HR departments should consider developing a clear progressive discipline process and consult an employment attorney or knowledgeable HR partner in situations where termination is being considered.

Quick Do's & Don'ts of Managing Difficult Employee Behaviors

When faced with difficult employee behaviors, it's helpful to have some quick dos and don'ts in mind to appropriately address the misconduct or poor performance.

What to Do When Addressing Behavior Issues

Do ask questions

Try to uncover the root cause of the employee's behavior. Pull them aside and talk privately. When conducting a difficult conversation, devise a list of open-ended questions and let them tell you whatever information they feel comfortable sharing.

Do make recommendations

It's important to be candid with the employee and share what specific concerns related to their job performance or conduct. Suggest areas for improvement when meeting with a difficult employee. Written feedback can be provided. All information presented should be concrete and measurable. For example, cite job expectations compared to the actual output of your employee.

Common Don'ts When Addressing Employee Behavior

Don't share information

Personnel issues should be handled in a confidential manner, as much as possible, for the protection of both you and your employee.

Don't forget to document the process

As a manager, make the effort to communicate the issues to employees and give them the chance to make corrections. Firing an employee without proper documentation of the process could open you up to potential lawsuits.

Don't ignore other job responsibilities

Dealing with employee performance issues and misconduct can be time-consuming, but the rest of your work still has to get done. Chances are, the employee's behavior issues won't be solved overnight. Set aside time to meet with the employee and develop and improvement plan. An action plan for addressing issues can also help you avoid wasting time going over the same issues again and again.


When addressing employee misconduct or performance concerns, develop an improvement plan and follow through with it. Remain committed to working through problems and improving the work environment for everyone on your team. Sometimes an employee is not the right fit for the position or your business, but there may be steps that can be taken that could result in improvement. Dig deep, find the root cause, and work toward creating innovative solutions for addressing misconduct and performance concerns.


We can help you tackle business challenges like these Contact us today

* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

About Paychex

Paychex was founded over four decades ago to relieve the complexity of running a business and make our clients' lives easier, so they can focus on what matters most.

We provide: