Are you struggling with a – uhmmm – ‘high maintenance’ employee?

Times are tough. Everyone is struggling. Businesses are under pressure. You need all hands on deck. And yet, there is that one employee you dread to deal with. Every day. Sounds familiar? If you get a group of human resources veterans and the managers that knock on their doors in a room together, they will soon compare battle scars – the horror stories of dealing with difficult employees that just would not change direction or go away.

This article is about looking at how we can deal with challenging employees.

The 80-20 rule revisited

As a manager, I am sure you know about the 80-20 rule in business (the Pareto Principle if you feel the need to impress anyone). It states that 80% of outcomes (or outputs) result from 20% of all causes (or inputs) for any given event.

However, there is another variant of the 80-20 rule that you may understand only too well: 80% of your management time is often spent on 20% of your employees.

The art of managing people

As a manager, you should be able to rely on the key policies and procedures of your company to deal with both groups. However, some staff members may be undercover gems. If managed correctly, they may (or unfortunately may not) become some of your most loyal and consistent performers. But it may be a long road. Are you able to make that commitment?

The thing many managers find difficult is to be protective and productive about their own use of time. We want the world of work to be a happy place. It is tempting to avoid difficult decisions, when you are dealing with conflicting priorities, to ignore the unhappiness of your staff who are doing well and focus on putting out the fires to your bottom line.

But managers DO need to reflect. They DO need to understand that their staff members are not machines but, like machines, when one part of the overall machinery breaks down, it can and will affect every other function. Not being recognized may cause productive staff to lose motivation and, when confronted with a domineering team member, to lose their confidence.

Back to basics

In a time of great uncertainty all around us it is useful to revisit some of the basics around staff management:


First things first – it literally starts at the beginning

  • Verification of qualifications and background checks

Small businesses often do not have the luxury of hiring ‘talent scouts’ and HR specialists. These services can cost the company the same as three months’ worth of salary of the person who is to be appointed. Many companies will rely on word-of-mouth referrals or advertisements in newspapers or online.

A particular difficulty that often arises is that of verification of qualifications and background checks. Sometimes, this process may either not be completed at all, or may be done after the person has already been appointed or difficulties have arisen. This can lead to legal complications! These may differ from industry to industry. Are you aware of the type of verification processes required? These may include police clearance, public driver’s permits (PDP), credit clearance as well as the qualifications of the person.

  • Policies and procedures

Did you go through the workplace policies and procedures with the staff member? Have they signed a document that these had been explained to them and that they understand what is required and who they need to speak to and how to go about communicating any challenges they experience? Do they know how disciplinary processes will work within your environment?

  • Job descriptions and Key performance Areas (KPAs)

Does your staff all have job descriptions on paper and have these been broken down into smaller parts against which their performance can be measured? Have these been reviewed and updated recently? This is especially important since where and how they work may have radically changed when the pandemic hit.

Doing performance appraisals may be the last thing on your mind right now. However, this is not only a way to address difficult behaviour in staff. It gives you the opportunity to reaffirm and clarify expectations and remind staff about the values and goals of the organisation. It is also about giving feedback in terms of what IS going well and allow your staff to give YOU feedback on their perceptions, experiences and ideas on how things could be improved. It can give everyone a sense of being in ‘this’ together. If a full-on 360 performance appraisal seem too daunting right now, opt for more regular, less formal check-ins. Be sure to record the outcome and make this available to the staff member.

Five things to do when facing difficult behaviour

  1. Seek confirmation, first

Make sure of your facts. Be aware of confirmation bias – when you have made up your mind and then find or only focus on the facts that confirm your view. Be careful of listening only to one half of the story.

  1. Pick your time and place carefully

Think about how the time of the interaction will affect you, your business, your team and the staff member in question. Next, be aware of the environment. Try to find the most neutral space, away from the eyes and ears of others. An audience may feel conflicted about a) sticking up for a fellow worker, regardless of their personal feelings; and b) be influenced by what the persons are saying and HOW they say it. This may have a ripple effect on work relationships, staff motivation and their willingness to speak with you as the manager.

If the person becomes defensive and make statements that may not even be true, this may cause doubt and confusion, even if the true facts are relayed afterwards. It is often not what is being said but how it makes people feel that is remembered.

  1. Share a sandwich – the overall structure of the meeting

If you don’t like an employee or feel resentful about the impact of their behaviour on others or yourself, you are more likely to only see the negative in the situation. You are more likely to achieve a more productive interaction, if you can pinpoint something good to reflect on. If positivity is too difficult, state a shared value, such as that you are sure that the person wants to succeed, or want to get ahead in life.

State that you are aware that things have been difficult for the person in question. Ask them their opinion. Explain that this is not only about the relationship between the two of you. It also impacts the business and the rest of the team. Give concrete examples. Always end off on something positive or at least neutral. A shared value or the hope of a positive future outcome. Even if it is only to state that you are willing to meet again.

  1. Stick to behavior

It is really important to separate the person, the emotions and the behaviour. This can be hard to remember when the person starts to insult you or press your buttons. Consider setting an agenda. Also invite the other person to add to it. If their items are not relevant to the present, validate these without using the word ‘but’!

Together, prioritise the issues. Agree on when the less urgent issues will be discussed. Better still, try to address some of their immediate concerns, first. A large part of managing people is modeling desired behaviour.

  1. Speak, record (with permission!) and write

When dealing with serious infractions, you want an accurate reflection of what was said by whom and how. This can make or break a CCMA case. You could offer the staff member a support person of their choice and have a witness there of your choosing. You may need to have a neutral translator present.

Additionally, you can state that you want to record the meeting and inform the person of their rights to access to such a recording. Note, it is illegal to record someone without their permission. Follow up with a written summary and let the person sign, stating that they have received it and understood what was written. Be clear about how and by when they should respond, should they disagree or want clarification.

Offer a way back (where appropriate)

You can do this in two ways:

  1. A performance management plan – record which areas the person needs to work on, what the practical outcomes would be, what support would be provided, what the requirements are (possibly in-house and through external support, such as a counselor) and how and when the process will be reviewed. State, too, what the outcome would be, should they succeed and also what the process would be, should they not.
  1. Challenge the person – this may take the form of a separate project that will fully engage their talents and interests. Make sure to pair them up with someone who has experience and a better or more neutral relationship with them. It needs to be achievable and useful. Provide specific, constructive, positive feedback. This may well be what gives them the motivation to change their behaviour.

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