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Whether they are inherited (via a business transfer for example), result from a recruitment mistake or just an employment relationship gone sour we all get these employees from time to time. Tackling a difficult employee can make a big difference to competitiveness.

Strategy One – understand the employee

Serious misconduct would be an exception but in most cases you should start here.

Indeed if the employee has worked for you for some time then it is crucial that you start with understanding the employee.

“Things” go wrong in life. Our physical and mental health and that of our close relatives, bereavement, divorce and personal tragedies can impact on any one of us from time to time; sometimes suddenly. With young people adolescence can be a stress.

“Things” can go wrong in work too. Harassment, subtle discrimination, even over-diligence.

If your employee has previously performed satisfactorily then it is even more important that you seek to find any circumstances that could explain the troublesome behaviour.

Start with an informal meeting. Confront the employee with examples of the behaviour that you have observed. Ask for explanations. You cannot probe for personal circumstances. Instead create a safe empathetic environment in which they can be revealed. If you show understanding then you have a better chance of being understood.

Seek to understand whether you, as an employer, have a responsibility to rectify anything; such as work overload. Or there may be matters that you and the employee can address jointly; such as flexible hours. Finally there may be matters that the employee has a responsibility to address alone, such as seeking counselling for depression.

If the meeting seems to be going wrong then adjourn. Say you will re-convene later when perhaps they may like to a have a colleague with them (and you should have a colleague too).

In legal terms these should be investigatory meeting(s). If you are contemplating any action, such as a disciplinary warning, then the meeting should be convened formally.

However in many cases, perhaps even most, showing understanding can be sufficient to resolve issues. But keep a note of your investigations because if the situation continues you will want to refer back to this meeting.

If your attempts at understanding fail then you will need to move to Strategy Two; which I will look at next month.

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice