The warning signs of a difficult employee

by 10 Dec 2018

The workplace is a rainforest - a delicate ecosystem that needs to maintain a balance in order to flourish. If one element is out of sync with the rest, the whole environment suffers and may collapse.

Difficult employees are the bane of any civilized office. The snarky remarks, the lack of discipline and the general unease which difficult employees create can make even the most professional of managers snap.

HRD spoke to Elinor Whitmore, Vice President of Stitt Feld Handy Group, who detailed some warning signs of a potentially problematic employee.

“First, it’s essential to distinguish between a difficult employee and an employee who may be currently struggling with a personal issue or other challenge” prefaced Elinor.

“HR leaders should watch out for employees who’re unwilling to accept or act upon feedback or are continually blaming others for their short comings. If you find that their colleagues are complaining or gossiping about them, this could also signify that trouble is brewing. Employers should also monitor workers who show uncivil behaviour towards their colleagues. These are all signs that you may have a difficult employee on your hands.”

There are also more subtle signs that are often attributed to more passive-aggressive behaviours. For example, Elinor mentioned the following examples: “Raising their eyebrows when a colleague is speaking, appearing to go along with a request but then not following through and generally making up excuses,” she told HRD. Elinor recommends being alert to passive-aggressive behavior or any other behavior that requires an HR leader to spend a disproportionate amount of time managing an employee or the fallout of that employee’s behavior.

However – a word of caution. Just because employers have spotted and diagnosed these signs of a difficult employee doesn’t mean they should rush in all guns blazing and tear up their contracts. The legal ramifications of firing a worker for just being annoying or troublesome could culminate in a costly lawsuit.

“Mishandling a difficult worker could end in being sued,” added Elinor. “Or the employee in question could file a formal grievance, take you before a labour board or even before a Human Rights

Tribunal. Getting the disciplinary action wrong is risky even with a well-mannered worker – the situation is exacerbated when it comes to a difficult one.”

But it’s not all about the legalities. Elinor was quick to point out that even if the employee isn’t successful in their lawsuit or other claim, the damage has already been done.

“The amount of time and money spent defending a formal complaint is monumental,” she explained. “However, the damage to an organization’s brand is equally, if not more, costly.”

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