How to deal with a difficult staff member


Managing a brilliant but maverick employee can give even the most open-minded leader insomnia. The IoD’s Information and Advisory Service offers some advice on how to deal with difficult staff, before things regrettably get out of hand

He may be devastatingly effective at his job, but James Bond is no model employee. Staff in the real world might occasionally phone in sick and then be caught in the pub, but few would have the temerity to exploit being presumed dead to begin a boozy early retirement in a tropical beach setting, as Bond did in Skyfall.

Yet there are surely many business leaders out there who can identify with the concept of a talented, unfailingly competent employee who is sometimes a little stubborn, disgruntled or disruptive.

“If a staff member’s simmering anger, moodiness and general attitude problem become intolerable, this could develop into a big problem for your business – especially if they come into contact with your customers,” according to the IoD’s Information and Advisory Service (IAS).

“As any seasoned people manager knows, you must address unacceptable staff behaviour as soon as it arises, otherwise it can send out the wrong message that it’s tolerated within your business.”

When it comes to cases of minor misconduct, a softly, softly, one-on-one approach is encouraged – and avoid getting personal, says IAS head Sarah Watts. “Describe the negative consequences of an action, rather than criticising the individual.

Keep messages of praise and criticism entirely separate. Do not end a conversation with a criticism and, once the message has sunk in, encourage the employee to think it through with you.”

Watts also points out that there’s a fine line to tread, when it comes to the underlying issue in question. “If the employee’s anger is work-related and valid, it should be addressed.”

“If it’s related to a personal issue, you can offer support – although employees should know that personal matters should not be allowed to affect their work if possible.”

“Having a written policy or code of conduct describing acceptable behaviour and attitude can be enormously helpful in these situations.”

Should the employee’s response to a measured discussion of the problem become more volatile, don’t let things escalate into a verbal altercation.

“You can never win an argument with an employee – the loser will become demotivated, and that is not in your interests as an employer. If disagreements arise, limit the damage; separate the facts from opinions; emphasise the areas where you agree.”

“You should also listen while employees talk – they may have spent a long time thinking about the matters under discussion, and might even have some excellent ideas. Acknowledge their opinions, even if they’re at odds with yours, and put yourself in their shoes.”

“Also, always give them room to save face, especially after criticism, failure or disappointment. Riding roughshod over your employees will lead to low productivity, poor morale and staff turnover.”

How could the IAS help you?

The IAS provides IoD members with free business intelligence and advice to help them run their companies more efficiently and successfully.

The Business Information Service is able to investigate questions on behalf of members and supply them with valuable information ranging from market forecasts and industry trends to trading abroad and employee salaries.

The Directors’ Advisory Service provides confidential, independent advice from specialists on issues ranging from raising finance to board and shareholders’ disputes.

Members can receive prompt and confidential business, personal tax and legal advice through using the IoD’s telephone helplines.

To find out more about the Information and Advisory Service, visit

Email here or call 020 7451 3100

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About author

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie is an editor, writer and digital content creator. Her first job was at Melody Maker and she then spent over 10 years in teenage magazines working from sub editor on 19 Magazine to editorial director of Hachette’s Teen Group. Her previous roles include group editor and head of content publishing for Director Publications and editorial director at BSkyB overseeing Sky’s entertainment, sports and digital magazines. Lysanne lives in London with her music promoter partner and a four year old Jack Russell.

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