Close this search box.

How to Improve Difficult Employees

How to Improve Difficult Employees

Two Skills that will help Improve Difficult Employee’s Performance

Managers and HR Leaders are sometimes tasked with a seemingly impossible task: figuring out how to improve a difficult employee.

Before issues with a difficult employee are brought to HR, however, managers must learn how to take two specific steps to work with the difficult employee to resolve workplace issues and improve performance. 

Often, problematic employees cause issues due to poor work habits. The poor work habits can range from:

  • Abuse of PTO or chronically late
  • Being personally disorganized
  • Engaging in toxic workplace behaviors

This article will outline two skills managers must learn to engage with difficult employees before the issue is brought to HR: identifying whether issues are due to poor work habits or performance and being able to describe and talk about the work habit issue. These two skills are taught in the course titled Improving Work Habits.

Why is it the manager’s responsibility?

Before we dig into the two steps managers must learn, it’s important to discuss why managers are responsible for this process. In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott provides a personal example of when she allowed an employee at her start-up to produce sub-par work. 

Scott details how her inability to handle the situation as a manager decreased the team’s morale, which likely added to her business’s failure. If one person’s actions aren’t held accountable, why should anyone on the team hold themselves accountable?

Managers must take ownership of the situation before calling on HR for help. Their team is looking to them to lead.

Poor Work Habit or Poor Performance?

The first step in working with difficult employees is for the manager to identify whether the issue is caused by poor performance or a work habit. These terms might seem interchangeable, but there is a difference between them.

A performance issue describes the ‘what’ type of work a team member produces.

A work habit issue describes ‘how’ a team member produces their work.

Imagine a significant client sends a message to your firm notifying you that they will be ceasing working with your company. As the manager, you go to the individual responsible for the client relationship to find out what happened. 

Below are two examples showing the difference between work habits and performance issues. 

  • Performance Issues: The account manager produced low-quality reports for the client and missed project deadlines.
  • Work Habit Issues: During client meetings, the account manager appeared to daze off and ignored the discussion. They were also seen using a tobacco vaporizer in the client’s office.

In this example, performance and work habit issues could both be the reason for the client’s loss. Regardless of the issue, the manager must make a distinction before moving into the next step of the process: describing the issue specifically.

Describe the Difficult Employee's Poor Workplace Habit

Once a manager has identified whether the issue is a habit or a performance issue, they must describe it in as much detail as possible. The best way to do this is to describe the issue in a behavioral, objective, and factual manner.

For example, if an employee named Joe frequently takes lunch breaks beyond the allowed time, the manager should convey what they see to curb the work habit. Below are two examples of how this feedback can be delivered. 

Choose which response you believe would best convey Joe’s poor work habits:

If you chose Option A, you would describe the behavior more objectively, factually, and accurately than Option B.

Option A:

“Joe, I’ve noticed this week that on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, your breaks went longer than an hour. On Tuesday alone, your break lasted for over two hours.”

Option B:

“Joe, I think you are taking longer breaks than allowed. Are you sure you are only taking an hour-long break?”

If you chose Option A, you would describe the behavior more objectively, factually, and accurately than Option B. You’ve identified specific days when Joe was late and how much time He took for lunch. This detailed feedback gets to the heart of Joe’s poor work habits.

Don’t forget empathy

Managers must remember to balance empathy with whatever feedback they are delivering. It will not only be easier for employees to accept the feedback when it’s delivered with empathy, but it’s also just the right thing to do.

For example, if the same employee, Joe, recently had a significant car issue and is carpooling to work, a manager should report to Joe that they are still expected to come to work on time while acknowledging that they know they have car issues.

The manager could deliver this feedback to Joe in the following way:

  • “Joe, I noticed that you were 15 – 25 minutes late three times this week. I know you are carpooling to work. However, we still expect you to get to work on time.

When managers balance the needs of the employees with the needs of the workplace, it’s much easier to help difficult employees overcome their issues.

A course by Vital Learning

This content is based on skills taught in the course Improving Work Habits. Learn how the Improving Work Habits course can help you or managers at your organization. Learn more –>