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5 Tips for Managing Difficult Employees

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Workplace conflict is inevitable. 

For shop owners, foremen, or other managerial positions, those passive-aggressive jabs from an employee or co-worker can take on a more personal flavor. This is where leadership and interpersonal skills that earned you a position of trust pay dividends. On the other hand, you’re human too, and understanding your feelings and how to respond appropriately is paramount. No matter what, though, it’s best for the good of your entire team if you can quickly handle the situation in a manner that creates a win-win for all parties, or in a way that spares the shop of the ongoing conflict—parting ways with an unrepentant employee.

What the Experts Say

When you’re faced with a difficult employee that you struggle to see eye to eye with, take a step back and lead from within your position and not your feelings.

“I hold supervisors, managers, and leaders to a higher standard,” explains Karen Young, president of HR Resolutions, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, human resources consulting firm. 

She encourages managers to stay engaged with all employees, especially those they find challenging to lead.

“We need to keep ourselves in check because [other] employees are watching us. We are leading by example and we want to be sure that we are leading with skills and behaviors we want our employees to follow, Young says.

Kennedy Wilson, COO of Delmarva Performance and Repair, an auto shop in Delmar, Delaware, says managers should understand the character of those they lead, which can go a long way toward seeing the heart behind the behavior.

“The Bible is our playbook. If you look at the disciples, even if you're not spiritual, they were all very different,” says Wilson, pointing to how Jesus managed various temperaments. “You have to have an open heart and an open mind knowing each person is bringing something to the table.”

Seeing the best in a challenging employee isn’t always easy, so here are five tips Young and Wilson shared with Ratchet+Wrench to help you navigate these relationships with clarity and grace.

Check Your Communication

Managers need to communicate clearly and professionally at all times. Even when managing tough-to-lead employees, your communication, body language, and tone of voice remain consistent across the board no matter how you’re received.

“There are right ways and wrong ways to talk to people. Civility goes a long way as a supervisor, and I have a responsibility to my staff to be courteous to them,” says Young.

Create Clear Boundaries

You leave the door open for misinterpretation when the code of conduct for your shop isn’t formally written down. Operating your shop without written rules and expectations could allow employees to test the waters and push boundaries, leaving you without a leg to stand on. Wilson says creating policies and procedures protects the company and its employees, giving both the framework necessary to work peacefully.

“Something we have found helpful has been to instill an HR policy so everyone is on the same page and the expectations are written out. Then you have parameters in which everybody can operate and feel confident that they're doing their job. It's a good way to monitor progress, as well as responsibility,” Wilson says.

Within written policies, shop owners should outline job descriptions, behavioral expectations, company guidelines, and disciplinary actions. Wilson says she likes to review her company policy with her employees and encourage their participation and ownership to increase support and have their voices heard.

“We used to do quarterly reviews every four to six months,” Wilson says, “but this past year we’ve started doing reviews with the entire team about once a month. It’s been a blessing. The more communication, the better.”

Know Your People, Really

According to Young, more often than not, employee frustration starts when managers don’t engage with the staff. When a manager leads positionally and not relationally, employees can become resentful and feel seen as dispensable. She encourages managers to learn names, ask questions about employees’ personal lives, share from their own lives, and greet individuals every day.

“I worked in a plant before where the plant manager would walk through the plant with his head down like he had blinders on. None of the plant employees could stand him. He didn't know their names or anything about them,” Young says. “Some employees want to share, some employees don't want to share, but acknowledge them.” 

She says the morning greeting is important to initiate and in certain settings, opening the day with a huddle before the shift starts. 

“This gives you an opportunity to talk about what's on the slate for the day. That's important stuff because it helps demonstrate you’re acknowledging your employees,” she says.

Hold Disruptive Employees Accountable 

There are three types of employees: those who are actively engaged, those on the fence, and those who are actively disengaged who come to work to get a paycheck, says Young. The actively disengaged are typically responsible for harboring attitudes that, when not put in check, create dissension that can lead to a toxic work environment.

“[Disengaged employees] are not going to impact your superstars. Your superstars are going to ignore them and do what needs to be done because they believe in the mission of the company, they're engaged in their work. But, those individuals are going to be gnawing at those people who are on the fence. And they really want to get those people on the fence over to their side. So that's why it is so important to hold those employees accountable,” says Young.

She recommends pulling the disengaged employee aside for a private chat to find out why they’re upset, if they have an issue with you, and to go over company policy governing disruptive behaviors.

“In any communication, remember you're not criticizing the person, you're challenged by the performance or the behavior. Make sure you acknowledge them as a person; make sure you empathize with any emotion they're bringing into it. Ask for their help and set up some guidelines for what they're going to need to do. Then follow up with them, but hold them accountable. Do not take responsibility for fixing their problem,” says Young, who states that when all else fails, terminating the employee may be the only course of action.

Encourage Openness

No employee wants to be difficult, and often they may not see themselves as being problematic. As a leader, discern what’s real and what’s perceived. The goal is to diffuse challenging situations and win employees back towards finding fulfillment in their work.

One of the best ways is to create an environment conducive to openness.

“We built a small private conference room. It's very comfortable, has leather seats, a round table, and there are four chairs. The round table is a place where people can have an open conversation,” says Wilson, who shared she also created a circular seating environment in the company lunchroom for the same reason.

In the end, a good leader serves. They don’t place their feelings about an employee above the duties of the job. When a manager can show the same concern and care about the career of his most difficult employee, the same as he can his star employee, that’s the hallmark of good leadership. When dealing with a difficult employee, remember to discuss, diffuse, and direct. If those don’t yield, you may have to dismiss them.

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