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7 Proactive Strategies to Manage Challenging Employees

7 Proactive Strategies to Manage Challenging Employees

By Laura Williams, Principal, Williams HR Law 

Employers may face a range of obstacles to their organization’s success depending on their industry, but they share one in common: almost all have been forced, at one time or another, to manage a challenging employee. 

It’s true that we encounter difficult people in every walk of life, but in the workplace, disruptive or outright toxic behaviour is both glaringly obvious and damaging. We’ve worked with several clients whose workplace culture, productivity and ability to retain clients have been significantly impacted by the actions of only one or two bad apples. 

Challenging employees might display a range of difficult behaviours from tardiness and chronic absenteeism, to lacklustre job performance. In some cases, these individuals might be resistant to coaching or performance improvement programs. Even when they do receive workplace or career guidance, these poor-performing workers will sometimes revert back to old habits. 

If you think the right approach is to simply ignore these employees and hope that they eventually quit, you may want to reconsider your strategy. When left unmanaged, a challenging employee’s behaviour can eventually impact an organization’s credibility with customers and employer brand - the ability to attract and retain top talent - increase litigation and legal exposures, increase the risk of accidents, harassment and acts of violence, and generally disrupt what might otherwise be an engaged and productive workplace. 

This all begs a simple question: How, exactly, are these individuals allowed to wreak havoc on the organizations that employ them? It often comes down to a lack of policies and procedures governing employee behaviour, or complete shortcomings in policy enforcement that result in gaps and inconsistencies. At other times those managers lack the training and accountability - in some cases even competency - to effectively manage their most difficult employees. 

The good news is that by leveraging a proactive approach to HR law, employers can contain the negative tendencies of their most challenging employees. Here’s how:  

  • Implement effective policies and practices - There are many organizations that lack coherent workplace policies that set expectations regarding how work is performed and acceptable conduct. This leaves the employer with no standards to hold employees to, and allows employees to define what is acceptable, which might not be aligned with the organization’s interests.
  • Provide training to leaders - Difficult employees often become impossible to manage because leaders lack the training to properly provide feedback and enforce policies that would otherwise curb their detrimental behaviour. Invest in effective training for your managers, with a specific focus on dealing with challenging individuals, as well as strategies to develop and enforce policies on a proactive basis. 
  • Ensure feedback is provided regularly - Employees can only improve if they’re given the opportunity and coaching needed to change their ways and bolster their performance. Regular feedback and performance improvement plans are important tools to help achieve that goal. Remember: even the most difficult employees can be rehabilitated. 
  • Document performance objectively - That means using quantifiable metrics such as on-time delivery statistics or productivity data to measure an employee’s performance. Doing so will give your organization hard evidence to support a just cause termination.
  • Provide clear expectations and escalating warnings - By applying a progressive correction/discipline policy, employees should be warned that their behaviour or performance is unacceptable, and it’s crucial to continuously escalate those warnings by outlining consequences if they fail to improve - including the possibility of termination. 
  • Allow employees reasonable time to improve - Although it may be tempting, warning an employee on a Monday and then terminating him on a Wednesday of the same week for failing to improve his performance is a sure fire way to create significant risk that the termination decision could be successfully challenged. Employees must be provided reasonable time to improve their performance, a period that typically lasts months - not days or weeks. 
  • Hold managers accountable - Far too many managers will attempt to sweep challenging employees under the proverbial rug rather than deal with their poor behaviour or performance. The reasons typically range from a lack of training to an aversion to confrontation. By holding managers accountable, your organization sends a clear reminder that they also risk discipline or termination if the performance of their most difficult team members is left unchecked. 

Laura Williams will be hosting CSAE’s CAE® Webinar: Navigating tough performance management challenges and termination decisions on June 14, 2016. 


As the founder and principal of Williams HR Law and Williams HR Consulting, Laura Williams boasts more than two decades of experience providing strategic advice and legal representation to employers on a full range of labour and employment law matters. Her core areas of practice include pre-termination advice and strategy, labour relations, workplace safety and insurance, wrongful dismissal actions, workplace investigations, human rights, disability management, workplace violence and harassment compliance and management, privacy compliance, employment standards, workplace policies, employment contracts, restrictive covenants and workplace culture recovery.




Leadership, Human Resources


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