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Dealing with Difficult Employees

It’s the time of year that a lot of people tend to slide into a slump. The days are short, the weather is poor and Christmas is over. Mix this with a global pandemic and there is no escape from some people feeling a bit down at the moment. Without doubt, many of whom we would usually term as “difficult employees” are likely to be very difficult at the moment.

We often get asked by practice managers what to do when two employees simply don’t get along. It might be that they’re both similar, it might be that there’s one employee that is really low at the minute and dragging others down, it might be that one doesn’t understand their impact on others.

It can be incredibly difficult to manage scenarios such as these. There is no “misconduct” to speak of and no one feels bullied. These are simply difficult employees. So what can you do? What can you advise your other team members do too?


  1. Raise their Awareness: Establish whether they mean to cause harm, or simply don’t realise they do.

 I do believe that most people are inherently good. By “good” I mean that it truly is the minority that will intentionally say or do things to upset others. You firstly need to establish whether you are dealing with somebody who is intentionally being difficult, or somebody who doesn’t realise the impact they are having on others. A simple way to do this is to talk to them. Let them know how they are making people feel. They may react defensively (that’s normal) but you might see a change in their behavior following a conversation. Make sure you take examples into the meeting so that they cannot deny their actions. A follow up conversation and a discussion about whether they have tried to do anything differently will establish how seriously they have taken the allegations.


  1. If you have tried to Raise their Awareness and they are not interested in changing their behavior, it could be that you are dealing with somebody who doesn’t care about the others they work with or sadly, may be intentionally difficult. It is with these people that you need to consider using a procedure such as Work Performance - Capability Procedure for Managing Poor Work Performance which relies on setting targets and the employee achieving them. If the employee doesn’t, they receive formal sanctions. You may also consider using your company Disciplinary Procedure, whichever you feel is more fitting.


  1. Do you have a Practice Code of Conduct? This is a written document that states what behaviours are expected in the practice and what is not acceptable. This can be a useful tool for discussing in team meetings, utilising when speaking to the difficult person and even helpful when planning targets and goals for a Performance Plan as mentioned above. Here is an example: Code of Conduct: Behavioural Expectations 


What can Employees do?

Whilst the manager is trying to deal with the problem, it can be difficult for other employees to feel comfortable at work. HR Processes can rarely happen overnight, so what can these employees do to protect their own wellbeing until the problem is sorted? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Take Action: Unless someone is being difficult due to a certain event in their home life that is likely to end, this situation is not likely to resolve itself. Depending on what the problems are, it might be that a private conversation between the employee and the difficult person is the answer. The employee also needs to reflect on their own behavior, could they be fanning any flames or is there anything they can do differently that may help?


  • Set Limits: This is an important part to help employees whilst the Difficult person is either working on their behaviour or being “dealt with”. Setting Limits can mean almost anything, but it allows the employee to ensure they are in control of the situation and put the brakes on a difficult person becoming too much. An example might be a time limit, such as “I only have 5 minutes before I need to…” or “Im afraid im busy right now, but I will be free in forty five minutes if you still need me”. Employees must ensure they are polite, of course, but letting the difficult person see that conversation isn’t always on their terms can help stop other employees getting overwhelmed.


  • Know when to Rise to the Challenge: Some difficult people enjoy causing drama and others simply like to be right, or enjoy going head to head with others. It’s important that employees know when to fight their fights and when not to rise to the bait. If a difficult person is trying to stir up some drama, walking away, not providing the expected response or changing the topic can be very easy, quick ways to diffuse a situation. Employees have to think about developing their own skill at thinking before acting and holding in those words that they may want to say, but won’t help the situation to be resolved, in fact they are likely to make it worse. They just need to consider- does it really matter?


  • Don’t go it alone: One of the worst outcomes when working with difficult people can be if one employee ends up feeling singled out or even bullied at work. For that reason, it is incredibly important for teams to talk. It is important to not try and instigate a “gossip” culture, but an employee discussing how they’re feeling with their line managers will allow the manager to take positive action, potentially speak to other team members and start a process towards dealing with the behavior. Employees need to be aware that a manager may not know about the problem if no one tells them. Speaking to a trusted colleague may also help, they may have also noticed the behavior or be able to support the employee who is struggling.


Dealing with difficult people has no easy quick fix and in some cases will sadly lead to someone having to leave employment. However it is important that both management and employees do tackle the problem and don’t just leave it alone and cross their fingers in hope.

If you are an FPM member and would like some help with a difficult employee, contact the free FPM HR Helpline on hrhelp@firstpracticemanagement.co.uk



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