7 Steps for Effectively Dealing with a Difficult Employee

Just about every practice owner, practice manager or team leader has had the unfortunate experience of working with a difficult employee. Sadly, it’s simply an inevitable part of managing people. Occasionally, despite our best recruiting and leadership efforts, there will be one team member who doesn’t measure up performance-wise, is combative with others, doesn’t do well with authority, or simply means well but never quite lives up to what’s expected of him or her.

The truly unfortunate thing, however, is how these ‘challenging’ employees tend to hold others – managers and colleagues alike – hostage. Of course, this isn’t a healthy scenario for anyone, but actually taking action and doing something about it can be difficult. For some, it can feel downright paralyzing. The good news is, there are proven strategies for how to deal with a difficult employee. Whether you’re in this situation currently or you just want to be prepared in advance, here’s what we recommend.


When it comes to dealing with an employee who is difficult, it’s common to struggle with feelings of irritation, annoyance and even hopelessness, which can ultimately lead to avoidance. The truth is, the best way to improve and resolve the situation is to fully and accurately understand that situation. And to achieve this, you must be willing to sit down and hear that employee out. You might be pleasantly surprised to learn that there’s an underlying issue for which you have an easy and feasible solution, but you won’t know unless and until you open up a dialogue. 

Provide Actionable Feedback

One common mistake many practice managers and practice owners make when dealing with a challenging employee is failing to actually address the problem. They may complain, but they never really resolve the issue. Instead of stewing in frustration, sit the employee in question down and provide them with some honest coaching. Make your expectations clear and then work together on an action plan for meeting those expectations. It may not be easy, but it’s necessary.

Document Everything

If you’re having significant issues with an employee, be sure you are documenting every interaction. This will become particularly important should you reach the point at which termination is the only option. There are employment laws in place to protect employees against wrongfully being fired, so you want to have all of your ducks in a row if and when the situation reaches that point. Remember – documentation isn’t a negative thing. It’s a prudent thing. If you resolve the issue, great! If not, you’ll be adequately prepared to back up your decision when the time comes.

Set Some Ground Rules

Once you’ve addressed the elephant in the room, make sure you’ve set and communicated clear and reasonable consequences, as well as a timeline for progress. For instance, your problem employee needs to know that he or she has 60 days to improve his or her performance and that if the expectations you’ve set haven’t been met at that point in time, this is what will happen (e.g. they will be put on warning, be ineligible for a bonus, let go, etc.). Make sure everyone is on the same page at all times.

Follow Through

If you tell an employee that a particular behavior is unacceptable, be prepared to back your statement up should it happen again. If you sometimes address the situation but other times look the other way, you’re sending mixed messages and – more importantly – undermining your own authority in the process. For instance, if you tell a team member that excessive tardiness is grounds for dismissal, but you don’t consistently reinforce that rule, you will lose credibility and face an uphill battle.  

Be Honest and Courageous

Managing a team isn’t always easy. There will inevitably be times when difficult or uncomfortable situations arise. You must be willing to face those situations head on, even if it means stepping outside of your own comfort zone. If a particular employee is causing problems with the rest of the team, don’t ignore it or sweep it under the rug. Acknowledge that a problem exists and be willing to step up to the plate and set things straight, once and for all. It may be uncomfortable in the moment, but it will pay off for the greater good in the long run.

Establish a Policy

If you haven’t already, work on creating an established and documented policy for how to deal with a problem employee. This should involve each step in the process, from an initial meeting to how many warnings an employee will receive and, of course, what the consequences are at each stage of the process. This workflow should be communicated to everyone on the team – ideally, it should be included in your employee handbook. This way, in the future, you’ll have a clear path to legal and justifiable termination if it does come to that.

Most seasoned managers understand that problem employees are par for the course. The best way to prevent this common scenario from bringing your practice down is knowing how to handle these situations when they arise and taking proactive measures to hire right in the first place. If you’re struggling with the second piece of this puzzle, we can help. Contact us to learn more.