Should you cut a difficult employee loose? You can skip reading this and I will give you the answer now: YES.
If you are weighing the pros and cons of of keeping a difficult employee, right now, cut them loose. Don’t wait another day. I know managing a difficult employee is hard, but we make it much harder than it needs to be.
It’s not as gray as it seems
I know this can feel like a more difficult decision than it actually is. It seems to live in a gray area, but actually doesn’t. I think the decision to keep difficult employees is pretty black and white.
When an employee isn’t living up to expectations and is also difficult, the path forward is obvious. You end up parting ways with those employees quickly. It’s the murky areas of managing a top performer who is also difficult that can leave you agonizing over what to do.
“And the unfortunate thing is, most managers get held hostage to these folks, spending a disproportionate amount of time, thought and emotional energy on them. Often hovering on the verge of letting them go for years, but never quite being able (for a variety of reasons) to pull the trigger.” Erika Andersen
Say no to drama, disruption and distraction in the workplace
I don’t mind managing challenging people—sometimes brilliant people are the most challenging people to work with. But I do mind team members who constantly cause drama, disruption or distraction in the workplace. That’s just not OK. To me, a difficult employee is someone who has one or more of these characteristics:
- Requires more energy to manage (for whatever reason) than is commiserate with their overall contributions.
- Detracts from day-to-day operations and reaching company goals with their ‘difficult-ness’.
- Stirs the pot with their co-workers with barbs, drama or disproportionate negativity.
When I say “difficult” what I guess I really mean is “toxic”. An employee who, according to Harvard Business Review, “ …spread(s) their behavior to others… a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates.”
People like this are just flat-out distracting… and a drag.
You aren’t going to create utopia where every employee loves each other and is perfect, where everyone wants to be best friends and no one ever rubs people the wrong way. But that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate difficult, toxic behavior that brings everyone down.
You already know the answer
If you are questioning whether or not to keep a difficult employee, the answer is already in front of you. I have agonized over whether or not to keep people for months, and for years. And I every time I kept a difficult employee for a single day, it was a day too long.
Of course, first attempt to resolve whatever the issue(s) is. Talk with the employee about the behavior and what needs to change. Reward progress in the right direction. Be open and candid about why this is important and what your expectations are. Be specific about what is difficult. Document the problems and resolutions.
But if you aren’t seeing sustained, lasting change, then you need to part ways.
“If a manager has provided direct feedback to an employee and they repeatedly choose not to change their behavior, then you know beyond a doubt that a situation is destructive and unsalvageable.” says Luba Sydor on Zip Recruiter.
You can lull yourself into thinking it isn’t that bad. You can lull yourself into thinking that you are blowing it out of proportion (or that someone else is). You can lull yourself into thinking the difficult person will change with enough coaching. You can lull yourself into thinking their performance is so strong that it is worth turning a blind eye to their bad behavior.
You are wrong. I know, because I have been there.
The reality is that a difficult person impacts your company, your culture and your team. The difficult person is distracting. The difficult person is poison. The difficult person undermines your leadership, because people wonder why you tolerate it.
Two final points…
I would be remiss not to say that philosophically I do think people can change. Being difficult isn’t an irreversible life sentence. But I now know that I can’t change them. That has to come from within them, and if I give someone the opportunity to course correct at work, and they don’t, then they need to move on.
And if you want, or need, a comprehensive overview of how to deal with difficult employees, here’s a good article from the Society for Human Resource Management.