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HR Tips
February 2015 
High Maintenance vs. Difficult Employees... and how to deal with them!
Dealing with High Maintenance Employees: 
It’s said that “Difficult Employees” are easy to spot, but before you assign that label to an employee, consider “Stewart”.   As a candidate and as a new hire he was impressive, but now --- not so much.  Stewart has become aggressive and lacks tact.  He wants to take on too much, too soon and his nervy tendencies irritate his co-workers and supervisor. He has even begun to get on your nerves. Stewart sounds like a difficult employee . . . but could he be a “High Maintenance” employee?  Could he be challenging, but also a talented and valuable asset?  Before you write him off, you should get to know Stewart.

High maintenance employees want to do things their way.  They don’t respond well to being directed, but they can be coached and will respond well to options.   For example, make sure that Stewart understands how his actions positively, or negatively, impact your operation. Avoid telling him what he can’t do or is doing wrong.  Instead, find out what frustrates him about his work and consider what he suggests as an alternative approach. What he proposes must be acceptable to you, but keep in mind that by their nature high maintenance workers are innovative problem-solvers. 

High maintenance employees may be mavericks, but don’t overlook the reality that they are naturally results-oriented, high-achievers. Take a good look at the Stewarts in your organization.  Evaluate them; uncover their work styles and their workplace motivators before you label them a difficult employee . . . you may be dealing with a high maintenance “gem”. 

But if Stewart is determined to be a truly difficult employee there are steps that you can take.

Dealing with Difficult Employees: 
Working with difficult people can be hard, but managing someone whose behavior clashes with your expectations can cause major tension.  Experienced supervisors know that they must separate emotions from job requirements.  Smart managers put their focus on tasks, projects and outcomes.  Personal feelings cannot interfere, and all employees must be treated the same way.

Too often, though, managers turn away from or ignore their least favorite employees.  They avoid interaction with the employee and write them off, preferring to do the job themselves.  This kind of avoidance is not only a management mistake, but can create legal problems for the employer. Difficult employees that frequently “bump heads” with management are the ones most likely to file lawsuits when they feel wronged.

When faced with employees who don’t do what is asked, it’s better to devise a strategy for making the best of the situation which can be potentially explosive.  You can take the following steps to make it easier for them to comply:

1. Confront problems head-on
If you don’t like an employee, chances are they probably feel the same about you.  Clear the air and acknowledge any ill will to help the employee focus on getting the job done.  Make sure you do so in a space that is both safe and open and honest.  Employees will only share critical views if they feel protected and empowered to do so.

2. Seek confirmation
When you give instructions, don’t assume you are fully understood.  Ask the employee to explain what you said and what your expectations are for the job.  The more clear everyone is on performance expectations, the easier it will be to manage the situation going forward.

3. Stick to behavior
Don’t let a person’s attitude or personality interfere with the job.  Focus on describing the work and your expectations.  If the attitude or personality is affecting their outcomes or performance, stick to describing those outcomes rather than focusing on the attitude itself.

4. Speak and Write
After explaining the assignment, have the employee confirm their understanding, ask questions and make suggestions – then follow up with e-mail or memo to summarize the assignment and reinforce the deadline.  Remember, people communicate in many different ways: following verbal with written confirmation ensures you are more likely to understand each other.

5. Talk on the employee’s turf
A practical way to encourage difficult employees to comply is to meet them on their own ground, not yours.  Calling them into your office could instantly put them on the defensive.  Instead, let the employee decide where he or she would like to engage in conversation.  This gives them both control and a sense of security.

While it may not be possible to transform a difficult employee into a friendly ally, if you follow the steps above, you are more likely to improve your relationship and enjoy the rewards of improved collaboration and performance.


By Margaret Jacoby, SPHR (MJ Management Solutions, Inc) and Ted Szaniawski (HRGroup, LLC)

Margaret Jacoby and Ted Szaniawski are contributors for Affinity HR Group, LLC, IIABNY’s affiliated human resources partner.  Affinity HR Group specializes in providing human resources assistance to associations such as IIABNY and their member companies.  To learn more, visit