Uncovering trigger points in difficult employees

by 03 Oct 2007

THERE ARE six key issues that can trigger off problems in difficult employees, according to an expert in employee behaviour.

While the symptoms of difficult employees often have a huge impact on an organisation and can be felt throughout the team, it is not always so easy to identify why they are occurring, said Steven Saunders, of Steven Saunders & Associates.

Speaking at a recent Robert Half event, Saunders said leadership was the first issue, and as a result, employers should examine themselves and the management team. “If staff do not have a leader with constancy of purpose, consistency in standards and clarity of communication, you have a breeding ground for difficult behaviour,” he said.

Fit was the second issue, and complications can simply result from an employee being a square peg in a round hole. “Perhaps the wrong candidate was chosen at interview phase and does not fit with the role, the company culture or the existing team,” Saunders said.

“When a company and a staff member are hopelessly mismatched, almost every strategy becomes a patching solution.”

An individual’s energy levels could also be an issue, he said. If people have any negative traits, those characteristics tend to be exposed far more when they are tired, according to Saunders. “This is true of many people who are drained and stressed.”

A heart that is not in the job can also contribute. “Check whether a person really wants to be in the role. Is the job truly what they want to do or, perhaps, do they harbour plans to move on?”

Psychological issues are one of the most common issues. Some people, through no fault of their own, have psychological problems and suffer from underlying issues of poor self-image, he said. “Other factors such as high stress, tension, depression and other psychological and psychiatric disorders, can contribute quite significantly to difficult behaviour.”

Tools and training was the sixth issue, according to Saunders. “Employees can become difficult or tetchy because they have not got the tools or the training to do the job. They feel as though they are in a no-win situation and their behaviour might be out of frustration arising from that.”

Director of Robert Half, Richard Dunks, said good management and people skills are impossible to learn through qualifications alone and some managers need help in these areas but might not know where to find it.

In contrast, through their training and experience, he said HR professionals are experts in the fields of staff management, leadership and emotional intelligence and it is important that the rest of the management team is aware of this level of expertise and encouraged to seek advice.

“The emphasis on making management aware of this resource logically lies with HR managers and can be initiated through regular forums enabling the groups to share information and discuss staffing challenges,” Dunks said.

“Sometimes problems can occur when managers, who think they are showing initiative, escalate an issue through lack of experience or doing the wrong thing. This could be avoided through consultation between management and the HR team. HR professionals should position themselves as trainers in people management and mentor executives on how to deal with situations.”

Timeliness is also a huge issue and HR managers need to communicate the urgency of dealing with matters immediately, he said.

“They should also encourage management to learn from mistakes and be aware of where staffing issues have occurred in other areas of a business. Difficulties with staff are often kept confidential by their nature but it is important that the whole management team is made aware of broader issues so everyone can learn from mistakes or what has worked well.”

Dealing with difficult employees

It is paramount that negativity is not allowed to breed throughout a team, according to director of Robert Half, Richard Dunks. Unhappy employees can often engage in 'well-poisoning' behaviour which can encourage other team members to join in or to negatively influence the functioning of a team.

"As a leader, it is very important that this behaviour is immediately leapt on," he said. "A perceptive boss will often notice growing tensions and will already have mechanisms in place for employee feedback to management. Nip it straight in the bud by staying focused on the issue and not allowing a difficult employee to draw you in, personalise an issue or, in some cases, publicly undermine you."

In dealing with difficult employees, Dunks recommended the following:

Deal with it as quickly possible - do not let it drag out and evolve into a bigger issue

Be specific - focus on the issue rather than being distracted by personalities or following irrelevant paths

Take whatever corrective action is appropriate and do not be afraid to seek external help

Stay calm and relaxed - for your employees but, as much, for your own health and sanity


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