No Image Available

Kate Russell

Russell HR Consulting


Read more about Kate Russell

That sinking feeling – handling difficult conversations


This article was written by Kate Russell, MD of Russell HR Consulting.

Managing difficult people and helping managers to manage difficult employees comes with the HR turf. The question is how can HR professionals best grasp the nettle when trying to manage difficult people/scenarios, either their own team or the wider workforce?

For the purposes of this piece I am discounting poor performance which is rarely deliberate. Instead I am looking at the types of problem conduct rooted in elective behaviour. There are many different forms: someone who is always cup half full and starts every other sentence “Yes, but ….” Constant negativity is draining and affects other employees. Other examples include inappropriate, argumentative or abusive language and behaviour toward colleagues, clients or suppliers; refusal to carry out duties; poor time keeping; poor quality work; excuses or refusing to be personally accountable for things going wrong; unappetising personal habits. The list goes on and on.

Why do employees behave badly? Humans are creatures of habit. People consciously or unconsciously repeat patterns of behaviour that have worked for them in the past. If you break the pattern so that the undesirable activity no longer gives the employee the outcome he formerly achieved, you can start to shape new and more helpful habits.

So how do we hone and develop our skills to handle situations of this type? To resolve issues connected with difficult staff, you need the Three Ps – patience, persistence and diligent adherence to a process. Remember that it is a manager’s duty and right to manage. A failure to do so means that the organisation is operating inefficiently, losing money and at worst it may cause good employees to leave.

The starting point is to be clear what your organisation’s standards are. Standards may originate externally (for instance, legal requirements, third party business partner requirements, industry norms) or internally. They penetrate to every part of an organisation’s activities, and it’s the role of the manager to communicate, monitor and enforce them. It can be helpful to capture some of the key standards in writing, set out in precise and measureable terms.

While this article deals with resolving problems with difficult employees, it never hurts to remind ourselves that prevention is always better and far less painful than cure, so try to design your selection processes so that you do not recruit a problem in the first instance.

What do you do if a difficult employee slips through the recruitment net and is appointed? Identify the problem and take action quickly to research, contain and resolve it. Exercise some sensitivity and commonsense. All employees – even the best – will have an off-day from time to time. If you treat everyone in exactly the same way it may backfire. Evaluate each case on its own facts.

The goal here is to develop a solution, not to "win". You are a concerned colleague who is interested in collaborating with the employee to try to resolve the issues. Investigate courteously, objectively and in private. Talk about the facts, give detailed examples with times and dates, recognise and give credit for what the employee does well. I find Mahatma Ghandi’s remark about hating the sin, but loving the sinner very helpful when I’m tackling this type of problem. It removes any element of personal attack, but places undesirable conduct firmly in the frame.

Generally, the process will start with an informal but noted conversation. Allow the employee to respond to your concerns. The more temperate and factual you are, the more difficult it is for the employee to refuse to accept your version of events. But some employees can be highly resistant and refuse to believe you despite the evidence. In these cases, you will have to give guidance that there is a problem and you want to work constructively with the employee to help and support him, so that he meets the organisation’s requirements in all particulars.

Try to find out what the basis of the problem is. Ask probing questions and listen carefully to the responses. Don’t suggest answers or otherwise interrupt. Stay calm and remain non-judgmental. Summarise regularly; this helps to ensure you’ve correctly understood what the employee has told you and it also tells the employee he’s been properly heard.

When the employee starts to grasp that what he’s doing is unacceptable and is causing damage, guide, coach and mentor the employee into an avenue of more acceptable behaviours. It may well take some time and you may have to invest in specialist support or training. Provide feedback to the employee to help him minimise actions which are undesirable and encourage him to adopt preferred behaviours whenever possible.

If the employee flatly denies there’s a problem, and refuses to do what he can to improve the situation, explain that while you want him to be happy and successful in the organisation, you can only achieve so much alone. He has to meet you half way, and that starts with an acceptance of the organisation’s standards. It is for the organisation to determine its standards, even if the employee disagrees with some aspects. If he cannot or will not take such steps as he reasonably can to improve, you will have little option but to explore matters through the formal discipline process.

A final word …. don’t overreact. One swallow doesn’t make a summer. By this I mean that employees spend a lot of time together and they may have traits which get on others’ (and your) nerves. This is not necessarily the same as being “difficult”. A manager who tries to eradicate every personality trait that he finds to be mildly unpleasant will alienate the entire workforce. But when attitudes or behaviour get to the stage that it has a negative effect on others, you have to take steps to remedy matters.

5 Responses

  1. The view from outside

    Admirable sentiments when consulting Kate, but the HR dept remains the henchmen (gender inclusive variant!) of mngmt. My services experience where HR was performed by the Coxswain/Military Policeman has been replicated in seeing identical roles within industry. Most recent experience was that a whistleblow alleging criminal corruption was investigated, dismissed and then I became involuntarily redundant. My wife’s current situation is that shortly after a promotion to a national role to deliver cultural change amongst some 30yr veterans at another office, HR has been brought in by her new mngr to plan her development and address ‘issues’ for 6 months (whilst that dept has already hired her a deputy, who is to be based at their location!) – she’s seen this happen often enough to peers to know the gameplan….. as a sufferer from integrity she’s oft requested as their referee. This isn’t just an Oz problem related to our convict roots – it’s a British co employing over 50 000 people.

  2. when a manager is unwilling to accept that an employee wants to

    Hi there

    Thanks for your post. An interesting question; I really can’t see why a manager would embark on a process to manage an employee and then refuse to accept that the employee genuinely wants to address the issue. I have never experienced it. Where we have managed to persuade an employee that there are issues and we want to work together to tackle them and that’s happened, we have been overwhelmed with delight. Just getting that far can be tough and getting recognition and acceptance by the employee are critically important.

    However, if what you posit did happen and I was advising the company, I’d draw the employee’s willingness and progress to the manager’s attention and tell him (or her) to stop fannying around, and to recognise and praise the improvement and keep encouraging the positive behaviours going forward. If the manager does not do so, he (or she – I am being mindful of the other post to this article!) may well end up being the subject of a grievance or potentially a constructive unfair dismissal claim. Depending on the basis of the unwillingness to accept the employee’s improvement, the two parties may need to rebuild some aspects of their relationship and in some cases mediation can be helpful.

    Hope this answers your question?

    Kind regards


  3. she, she/ he he

    Hi there

    If I have understood you correctly, you are gently pointing out that I refer to employees in the masculine?

    My apologies. I know it is more politically correct to say he/she all the way through, but it is such a clumsy device and interrupts the flow. For brevity and clarity I usually refer to employees in one gender which is intended to cover the other as well. Believe me, I do not think one gender has horns and the other has halos…

    Kind regards




  4. A huge presumption !
    Great article Kate, very useful. However whilst I appreciate that you cannot facilitate for every situation – what happens if the employee knows and accepts the standards of performance/conduct set by the organisation and shows a willingness to want to improve, but the manager does not accept this ?

  5. That sinking feeling – handling difficult conversations

     HEY ! She she she  – Whats this he he he ref all about then ? fairly typical MD speak and there is you preaching to the inferiors

     Sinking Sinner


Get the latest from HRZone

Get the latest from HRZone.


Thank you.