Managing Difficult People in the Workplace

Welcome to this two minute HR blast. In this Blast, we look at the challenging topic of how to manage difficult people in the workplace. If you have a workplace full of saints and angels, we suggest you  move on to more pressing matters! If however, you have line managers who are frequently tested by challenging employees, then you might just find a few of our thoughts and some guidance helpful!

Difficult people in the workplace we come across…

Your employee creates barriers

  • Gets legal to avoid a difficult situation and either threatens legal action or raises a formal grievance against the manager attempting to manage them.
  • ‘Counter sues’ i.e. raises a grievance against the employee/s who have already raised a grievance against them, which you are trying to investigate.
  • Simply refuses to attend a meeting (grievance, performance management, appeal, sickness return etc.) and says that you can’t make them (oh and they ‘know their rights’).
  • Pretends to speak even less English than they normally speak and uses language difficulties as an excuse not to answer the relevant questions or do what is being asked of them.

Your employee lays blame

  • Insists that in their ‘culture’ what they just did, that you consider to be misconduct, is entirely acceptable and therefore they should not be disciplined for it – if you respect their culture as your diversity policy suggests you will!
  • Acts helpless and childlike and insists that it is you, their manager, who is failing here to provide sufficient support, rather than them not performing to the required standard.
  • Plays the blame game when under fire for excessive absence or misbehaviour and, it appears, everyone else is to blame for the situation and they are in fact just a mere victim.

Your employee has low emotional intelligence

  • Appears to listen to what you say, but clearly does not as they answer an entirely different question to the one you put to them. Or they go away and do exactly what it was you just said they should not keep on doing.
  • Is so lacking in self awareness that the picture you paint of how their colleagues perceive them in the workplace is meaningless to them and therefore they refuse to accept what you are saying.
  • Is so defensive before you even say anything, that any discussion you have with them is likely to be meaningless.
  • Is so angry at everyone and everything, that any discussion you have with them is likely to result in a verbal (or physical) explosion with you suddenly becoming the cause of it all!

So with so many challenges, what can line managers do?

  1. Take time to work out exactly what you’re dealing with, each time you come across a challenging employee.
  • Hold back from any emotional responses of your own, or demonstration of frustration with the employee.
  • If necessary, adjourn your current meeting and reconvene when you are fully prepared and have had time to think it through.
  1. Take time to read up on the law. When can employees hide behind the human rights act? What exactly are their ‘rights’? What is the genuine legal situation here? What rights do you have to insist on managing them/requiring them to attend meetings etc.
  • Too often we see managers with their backs against the wall with the employee insisting they know their rights, whilst their manager hasn’t any idea whether what their employee is telling them about their rights is factual or simply ‘pub’ mythology.
  1. Take time to think about your own rights. Be clear about when an employee crosses the line with you, in terms of how they speak to you, their actions, their lack of co-operation and be clear about how you will assert your rights to be listened to, respected, and your instructions adhered to as their manager.
  • Always remember that both you and your employee have rights. It is not just the employee who has ‘rights’.
  1. In meetings with difficult people, when presenting the ‘problem’ to them, steer clear of ‘I think…’, ‘in my opinion…’, ‘people say…’. Instead, make your comments business-like rather than personal, really specific and totally clear of ambiguity leaving no wriggle room at all. For example…
  • On xxx date you said/did xxx, the impact of which was xxx as witnessed by xxx.
  • Joe Bloggs on xxx date in xxx location xxx reported to me that he saw you doing xxx.
  • In the past xxx months you have been absent xxx times, the reasons you gave were xxx and xxx, and your absence levels need to be considered against a company average of xxx.
  1. Prepare full notes before you meet with your difficult person. You might even choose to prepare a script. Then stay on message during your meeting. Whilst listening to their responses in case there is, for example, new information for you to consider, do not let them derail you.
  • Plus, after the meeting, confirm within 24 hours the exact messages in writing to them. This could be in the form of a carefully worded email, starting with the words ‘Following our meeting, I thought it would be helpful to confirm what we discussed and agreed…’
  1. You might not legally need a company witness at the meeting you are having, but with difficult people two witnesses/heads are often better than one. How about asking an appropriate colleague to take notes of the meeting for you – they can then additionally act as a witness, without drawing attention to the fact you have a witness there.
  • Plus having someone else beside you for a sanity check during and after the meeting, may be quite useful!
  1. If someone listens, but does not hear, have that exact conversation with them there and then. Do not let them walk out the door knowing that they have not ‘heard’ you.
  • Explain that your are concerned that they maybe don’t understand what you’re saying – why not ask them to repeat back to you what it is you want them to do.
  1. If someone refuses to attend a meeting, acknowledge that you cannot physically force them to attend, but do not back down from having the meeting.
  • If alternative dates and times are not of interest, then fix a date and say that the meeting will go ahead without them however, they can submit written representations if they like.
  • Hold the meeting, make it formal, make notes, inform them in writing of any outcomes.
  1. Aside from the current issues, consider whether, for example, your employee would benefit from anger management training or whether your line manager would benefit from assertiveness skills training. This sort of support should be considered in order to address the underlying communication issues you are facing with the employee and to support the line manager in dealing with a difficult situation..
  • If you do this, the next time an issue needs to be managed, your employee and/or your line manager will, hopefully, be better equipped to deal with them.

Interested in some training with great ROI potential? Consider these opportunities from Jaluch:

Call us! If all else fails, why not ask one of our HR Consultants to support you in chairing meetings with your difficult employee?

The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individual matters.

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