(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

How to Communicate With Difficult Employees

The backbone of any great business is a team that works smoothly together. However, the workplace isn’t always smooth sailing. There are instances when managers are confronted with challenging employees who negatively impact the team’s performance.

Do you have a difficult employee on your team?  At some point, it often calls for a candid conversation.

But knowing the right way to approach a difficult employee is important. There are some essential do’s and don’ts. You don’t want to start your conversation on the wrong foot. This is especially true if you’re dealing with an employee that is prone to defensiveness or that lacks self-awareness.

Here are some tips for how to communicate with difficult employees, especially when you need to have tough conversations.

Traits of Difficult Employee

A difficult employee is one that often exhibits traits that make it harder for coworkers and managers to cooperate with them. These traits can be disruptive, and if left unaddressed, can breed a hostile work environment. Eventually, affecting morale and productivity. Yet, categorizing employees as ‘difficult’ without comprehending their perspective can be overly simplistic and unhelpful. Often, these challenging behaviors are symptomatic of deeper issues, such as unmet needs, dissatisfaction, or personal stressors.

Here are some of the traits you’ll find in a difficult employee:

  1. Resistance to Change: Such individuals are often rigid and inflexible when it comes to adapting to new situations or changes in the workplace. They may balk at new initiatives, technologies, or procedures, causing slowdowns and potentially hindering progress.
  2. Negativity: Consistently negative attitudes can quickly erode team morale. These employees often focus on problems rather than solutions and tend to see the worst in situations, people, and decisions.
  3. Lack of Cooperation: They might have difficulty working in a team, often preferring to work alone. Their lack of collaboration can stifle the exchange of ideas and slow down team progress.
  4. Poor Communication: This could manifest in several ways, from failing to listen attentively to others, not conveying information clearly, to actively withholding necessary information. Poor communicators can create misunderstandings and inefficiencies in the workplace.
  5. Defensiveness: Difficult employees often react poorly to criticism or feedback, becoming defensive or argumentative rather than using the feedback as an opportunity for growth. This trait can make it challenging to address performance issues or implement necessary changes.
  6. Passing the Buck: These employees are quick to blame others when things go wrong, instead of taking responsibility for their actions or mistakes. This unwillingness to own up to errors can create a toxic and distrustful work environment.
  7. Disrespectful Behavior: This could involve frequent rudeness, interrupting others, ignoring boundaries, or displaying a lack of consideration for others’ ideas or feelings. Such behavior can make colleagues feel uncomfortable and undervalued.

Set up a Time to Talk

This might seem obvious, but consider the opposite approach: talking to the employee when it isn’t a good time. If you’re swamped with work, bombarded with IM’s, inundated with emails, and being asked questions by many other team members, you won’t be able to focus on this important conversation. And, your employee won’t take it seriously because you’re distracted. If you’re distracted, why should your employee care?

Pick a time when you can focus and a place that’s distraction free. You need a place where other employees aren’t likely to hear what you’re saying. The employee needs to feel free to answer your questions. And, you need to be able to freely communicate what will happen if he or she doesn’t get on board with what’s expected. Setting up the right time and place to talk is critical, especially when you’re about to communicate an important change.

Read: How Stop Employees from Driving Each Other Crazy


Think about what you want to come from this meeting. Is your intention to correct the employee’s behavior? Are you providing a final warning before termination? Or, is this the first time you’re meeting with an otherwise good employee to discuss an issue?

As you ask the employee questions, listen to their responses. Be sure to ask follow-up questions if you’re not sure you understand what has been said. You could say something like, “I heard you say… but I’m not sure I understood what you meant when you said…”

Fully listening – rather than partially listening – can help you find the source of problems you didn’t see coming. This can be true if you’re trying to find out why an employee is suddenly having a problem showing up, or why their performance has declined. Active listening can also help you get to the root of why there are conflicts between co-workers, or why employees won’t cooperate with policy changes.

If you fully listen, you’ll be more equipped to determine if the root cause of this problem is just a bad attitude, or if it’s something like a toxic workplace, harassment, intimidation, or even an employee’s own personal issues. Listening fully might help you discover the cause of a good employee having a bad attitude.


Focus on the Behavior

During the meeting, you want to stay on-topic. Avoid veering off into casual conversation and don’t stray away from the goal of your meeting. Focus on the behavior: what have you observed? What is the employee doing right? What is the employee doing wrong? Focus on the behavior and how it needs to change.

Focusing on the behavior is also important because it helps you avoid any wrongful appearance of favoritism. Avoid comparing this individual’s job performance with other employees. If you have job evaluation criteria that you use for all workers, share this so you can focus on the behavior, but don’t compare this person to others.


Avoid Accusatory Language

As you speak with the employee about what’s going wrong, it’s important to choose your words carefully. Avoid vague accusations or making statements that could be construed as insults or blows towards their character. Focus on specific incidents you’ve seen. It could be something like, “I’ve noticed many times that you do not follow our customer service procedure. This is the second time we’ve spoken about this.”  Maintain a professional tone as you present the evidence of your case.

Being vague can also avoid confusion. Statements like “you always” or “you never” should also be avoided because they often put a person on the defensive. Provide facts as much as you can rather than vague, sweeping statements.


Present Clear Expectations

In order to steer an employee toward success, you must present him or her with clear expectations. An underperforming employee may want to do well, but he or she may need more guidance than expected. Give clear expectations for what should be done. Create an action plan with detailed steps. Create deadlines for when the employee must complete each step of the plan.


Continue to Communicate

After you’ve clearly communicated how the employee should change, keep communicating with the employee. You may want to meet with him or her again to monitor the progress with the plan you created. Is he or she meeting expectations? Is there still a struggle taking place? Keep tabs on progress so you can ensure that problems don’t go unresolved.

It can take effort to improve your communication skills with your team, but it’s well worth it.



Communicating with difficult employees can be a daunting task. However, using the right strategy can ensure that your conversations will be successful. Choosing the right place and time for these conversations will help you set your expectations and put your employees back on a path to success.

Erin Shelby on TwitterErin Shelby on Wordpress
Erin Shelby
Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

Like this article? Get updates by email and get our eBook for FREE

Subscribe and Get Updates!


Invalid email address
Give it a try. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Article Tags:
· · · · ·
Article Categories:
Find Your Way · Grow Your Business · Leading Your Team · Productivity · Sales

Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

Recent Posts

Related Posts

Popular Posts