Strenuous Staff: Dealing With Difficult Employees

Posted by Christina Alvino on Sep 13, 2022 12:00:00 AM

Everyone has them, the employees who are difficult. Maybe they’re late each day, call in excessively, or they aren’t filing reports nor making bank deposits as required. “No one usually wakes up and decides they want to be a difficult employee and do a terrible job,” says Beau Agnello, senior vice president of Pogoda Companies in Farmington Hills, Mich. 

Inc. defines a “difficult employee” as someone “who fails to conduct himself or herself in a responsible and/or professional manner in the workplace.” 

There are different reasons employees may be viewed as difficult, and there’s also many ways to handle them. Ideally, you want figure out the problem and correct it before making the choice to terminate the employee. 

Afterall, it could ultimately cost you up to 50 percent of that employee’s salary to terminate and replace him/her. 

What Makes An Employee Difficult 

You know there are things that aren’t quite right about your employee, but the first thing you must do is identify what type of a difficult employee you have: 

Agnello summarizes the different types of difficult employees as those who have: 

  • Skill gap 
  • Will gap 
  • Engagement gap

Beyond that, there are employees who may be considered more toxic. Diane Gibson, president of Cox’s Armored Mini Storage in Phoenix, Ariz., says toxic employees may include: 

  • An employee who blatantly defies company policy
  • An employee who stirs the pot 

M. Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training, and developmental services for Universal Storage Group (USG) in Atlanta, Ga., says any employee who just generally has a bad attitude and is not functioning after many training sessions may be considered a toxic employee as well. 

Dealing With Difficult Employees 

After determining if you’re dealing with a difficult or toxic employee, facility owners and managers must then determine what to do. 

In addition to addressing the employee, Agnello says Pogoda Companies takes an internal look at their processes. “Hiring an employee is like planting a seed,” he says. “A seed needs plenty of sunlight and water to grow. If it doesn’t grow, you don’t first blame the seed; you make sure it has what it takes to thrive. The analogy can be used with employees.” 

Agnello continues, “We take a look at the employee and figure they were hired for a reason, and something went sideways between hiring and how they’re doing their job.” 

Skill Gap – One of the first things Pogoda Companies looks for is whether the employee received the right training. “We don’t just look at the employee, we look at the process; we make sure we don’t have a problem onboarding,” says Agnello. “We ask ourselves if we’ve done a good job training.”

Ballard says, “We know for a fact that it takes at least three times telling someone something before it starts to take hold.”

At Cox’s Armored Mini Storage, employees receive two straight weeks of training at the beginning of their employment. It’s been Gibson’s experience that it typically takes about 30 days of someone doing something over and over before they truly get it down and it becomes habit. “After that point, we usually will send someone else in to help them,” she says. “Sometimes we find if we bring in a different person, they may have a way that connects with the employee better.”

At 60 days, the company gives a training quiz. “If they have a different answer than what we’ve trained, we go back in and help with the issue,” says Gibson, who explains that training is always an on-going activity. The employees sit down with the district manager and come up with a different topic to cover each month.

Agnello adds that once they assess it is a skill issue and their processes are vetted, they will ask the employee how they can help and put together an action plan.

Will Gap – This may be a little more difficult to handle compared to a training issue. “I think it’s still worth the manager looking internally first,” says Agnello. “Are they in the right culture? Does the employee feel safe and supported, and do they feel they can come and talk to you about their mistakes? An employee needs to feel that trust from their manager and from the company.” He says it’s also important to ensure the employee isn’t being micromanaged and that the manager isn’t just pointing out mistakes but also focusing on the employee’s output and quality of their work. 

Gibson explains there are many different reasons an employee may have a will gap. “If it is this issue, we find out if they have something personal going on,” she says. “We tell them we understand but explain it might be affecting their job performance. Sometimes they must be made aware of that.”

While Cox’s doesn’t have any in-house counseling services, they may suggest, in extreme cases, the employee seek counseling or other resources that may be able to help their situation. 

Engagement Gap – This may also be called a personality conflict, or the employee may have some communication barriers. “You have to learn how to deal with different personalities,” says Gibson. “You have to learn how to motivate them and what drives them.”  

Ballard agrees. “You must find out what motivates them to do what you want. Are they here just to draw a paycheck or is it more ego-driven?” 

Agnello says if there is an engagement gap, you might want to consider if you have the right person in the right position. 

The Toxic Employee 

Rarely, you may have someone who doesn’t fit in any of the above categories and is just a toxic employee. “Someone trying or undermining the work, someone who goes around bad mouthing everything is a toxic employee and the most dangerous difficult employee,” says Ballard. “You have to be hyper aware of those kinds; they destroy everything you’re trying to do, and many owners find out too late.” 

Ballard adds that it’s very important to deal with these types of employees immediately. “One bad apple will spoil the whole bunch; and you will soon have not just a toxic employee, but it spills over to the entire team.” 

Ballard understands the hesitation to deal with employees, especially if management knows the employee is toxic. “Some may just want to hang on because employees are so hard to find, especially now,” she says. “Owners used to be held hostage by managers because they needed someone on site. Today, if all else fails, they can run mostly remote with call centers and kiosks.”

Those types of stores can get by with fewer employees, but they still must have someone on site for move-ins and move-outs.  

Steps To Take 

No matter the reason, it’s important you have a detailed plan in place for dealing with the employee if steps in training, motivation, or changing processes don’t change the behavior. 

First, it’s important never to have these types of discussions with employees in front of others and to remember not to just point out the negative; be sure to include positives in the conversation. “Never take anyone to task in front of another employee,” says Ballard. “Also, point out their strengths, too. People like to hear what they’re doing right.” 

Ballard also advises documenting every single conversation with the employee, even if it isn’t an official warning. “Some are pros at ‘gaming’ the system, and you have to create a paper trail.” 

If it comes to written disciplinary action, you must make sure everything is clear in writing and sit down with them in person if possible. If it isn’t possible to sit down with them in person, organize a video meeting with the district manager, human resources (if applicable), and the on-site manager. “Have them sign the form,” says Gibson. “It seems some take it a lot more seriously if they have to sign.”


Of course, unless it is a blatant and serious issue, such as theft, and nothing else has worked, some employees just aren’t a right fit. “Companies give a lot of lip service to employees being family, and we just don’t terminate family,” says Agnello, “but sometimes the employee is just not the right fit.” 

You’re not only doing your company and other team members a disservice by trying to hang on to that employee, but it isn’t helping the employee, either. “It’s time for a difficult and honest conversation with them,” says Agnello. “It may not mean a termination; it could mean another role within the company if that’s possible and warranted. We understand not everyone makes a great manager, but they may be a fit somewhere else.” 

Sometimes it’s better to let the employee go to a company with a culture better suited for them. “I’ve known of instances in which an employee may come back months or years later and thank the manager for letting them go so they could find a better fit,” Agnello says.  
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist based in the Ozark Mountains. She is a regular contributor to MiniCo’s publications. Her business articles have also appeared in Entrepreneur,,, and The Kansas City Star.