Difficult employees exist everywhere in the workplace and they come in every conceivable variety. Some talk constantly and never listen. Others must always have the last word no matter the situation. Some coworkers fail to keep commitments even when goals have been set.
Others criticise anything that they did not create just to frustrate others' efforts. This group of individuals, experts say, can be very annoying and must be handled in a more professional and productive manner.
Human Resource Expert, Susan Heathfield, said dealing with difficult coworkers depends on one's self-esteem, self-confidence and professional courage. She explained that as long as "you work with people, you have had to address tough situations and handle difficult conversations with annoying employees".
"Difficult coworkers compete with you for power, privilege and the spotlight; some go way too far in courting the boss's positive opinion - to your diminishment. Some coworkers attempt to undermine you and you constantly feel as if you need to watch your back. Your boss plays favourites and the favoured party lords it over you; people form cliques and leave you out.
"Difficult people and situations exist in every work place. They all have one thing in common. You must address them. No matter the type of difficult situation in which you find yourself, dealing with difficult people or situations is a must," she said.
She further explained that it is difficult to hold conversation with employees who exhibit bad behaviours in the workplace such as gossipers, grumpy or moody co-workers, loud phone talkers, poor toilet etiquette amongst others. This, she insisted must be well managed to avoid conflict in the workplace.
"Perhaps she has bad breath. Perhaps he needs to bathe more often. Maybe, she clicks her teeth all day long and is driving her co-workers crazy. Maybe she talks too loudly on the phone all day. Perhaps your annoying employee talks over other people in meetings and becomes defensive when called on the behaviour by coworkers.
"Possibly, she hums in her cubicle or plays music much too loudly. Or, she wears so much cologne that you can smell her coming when she hits the door. I've had to address all of these situations and more with annoying employees," she added.
She observed that often time, when co-workers do these things, they do not know they do them, stressing that most people would be horrified to learn that they are making their co-workers uncomfortable.
According to her dealing with difficult people is easier when the person is just generally obnoxious or when the behaviour affects more than one person noting that dealing with difficult people is much tougher when they are attacking you or undermining your professional contribution.
On reasons why difficult employees must be handled in a professional manner, she said: "Your situation won't get better; left un-addressed, it usually gets worse and often erupts counterproductively above - the surface at work.
Speaking further, she said "Initially, people go into shock when they are treated unprofessionally, so if you take some time to understand exactly what is happening to you, you are not alone. Once you are fully aware of what is happening, deciding to live with the situation long term is not an option. You become so angry and feel so much pain that your efforts to address the situation become irrational. It's far better to address the difficult person while you can maintain some objectivity and emotional control.
"Constant complaining about the coworker or situation can quickly earn you the title of whiner or complainer. Managers wonder why you are unable to solve your own problems - even if the manager's tolerance or encouragement of the situation is part of the problem".
Most importantly, she pointed out that "if you are embroiled in a constant conflict at work, you may not only get blamed for being "unable to handle the situation like a mature professional," you may be labeled as a "difficult" person, too. This label is hard to escape and can have devastating consequences for your career".
Finally, she explained that if the situation continues to deteriorate over time, "the organisation and your boss may tire of you. The boss may decide you are a "high maintenance" employee, easily replaced with a more professional or cooperative person, and you could lose your job".
She observed that all sorts of dysfunctional approaches have been used by individuals in dealing with a difficult coworker without recording good success.
According to her, putting an anonymous note in the person's mailbox is not an option, placing a can of deodorant on a hygiene-challenged coworker's desk is not a productive option either and confronting the bully publicly can often lead to disaster. She therefore stressed the need for employees to look at more productive ways to address their difficult coworkers.
Approaches to Dealing with Difficult Co-workers
In an article on 'Rise Above the Fray: Options to Deal With Difficult People', Heathfield listed ten productive ways to deal with difficult coworkers.
* Start out by examining yourself. She emphasised the need for individuals to examine themselves before putting blames on others. She said: "Are you sure that the other person is really the problem and that you're not overreacting? Have you always experienced difficulty with the same type of person or actions?
"Does a pattern exist for you in your interaction with coworkers? Do you recognise that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed? (We all do, you know.) Always start with self-examination to determine that the object of your attention really is a difficult person's actions".
* Explore what you are experiencing with a trusted friend or colleague. She urged the affected employees to brainstorm on ways to address the situation adding that "when you are the object of an attack, or your boss appears to support the dysfunctional actions of a coworker, it is often difficult to objectively assess your options. Anger, pain, humiliation, fear and concern about making the situation worse are legitimate emotions".
She further emphasised the need to "Pay attention to the unspoken agreement you create when you solicit another's assistance stressing that "you are committing to act unless you agree actions will only hurt the situation. Otherwise, you risk becoming a whiner or complainer in the eyes of your colleague".
* Approach the person with whom you are having the problem for a private discussion. Heathfield insisted that an employee must engage the difficult coworker in a private discussion. "Talk to the coworker about what you are experiencing in "I" messages. (Using "I" messages is a communication approach that focuses on your experience of the situation rather than on attacking or accusing the other person.) You can also explain to your coworker the impact of their actions on you.
"Be pleasant and agreeable as you talk with the other person. They may not be aware of the impact of their words or actions on you. They may be learning about their impact on you for the first time. Or, they may have to consider and confront a pattern in their own interaction with people. Worst case?
"They may know their impact on you and deny it or try to explain it away. Unfortunately, some difficult people just don't care. During the discussion, attempt to reach agreement about positive and supportive actions going forward", she added.
* Follow up after the initial discussion. This, she said must be followed up with further discussion particularly if the coworker's behaviour has not changed. She said "Has the behaviour changed? Gotten better or worse? Determine whether a follow-up discussion is needed. Determine whether a follow-up discussion will have any impact. Decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person by yourself.
"Become a peacemaker. (Decide how badly you want to make peace with the other person and how much you want your current job. Determine whether you have experienced a pattern of support from your boss.) If you answer, "yes," to these questions, hold another discussion. If not, escalate and move to the next idea".
* You can confront your difficult coworker's behaviour publicly. This, she pointed out must be dealt with gentle humour or slight sarcasm. "Or, make an exaggerated physical gesture - no, not that one - such as a salute or place your hand over your heart to indicate a serious wounding.
According to her, you can also tell the difficult person that you'd like them to consider important history in their decision making or similar words expressed positively, depending on the subject. Direct confrontation, she said does work well for some people in some situations.
However, she said: "I don't think it works to ask the person to stop doing what they're doing, publicly, but you can employ more positive confrontational tactics. Their success for you will depend on your ability to pull them off. Each of us is not spur-of-the-moment funny, but if you are, you can use the humor well with difficult coworkers".
* Make a plan to address the issues. She explained that "If you have done what you can do and employed the first five recommended approaches with little or no success, it's time to involve others - your boss or a manager. Note that you are escalating the situation. Prepare to talk with your boss. Take notes and address the issues, not as interpersonal problems, but as issues affecting your productivity, the work and your progress on projects.
"Tell your boss exactly what the difficult person does. Perhaps involve your coworker's boss. Recognise that a good boss is likely to bring your difficult coworker and his supervisor into a three or four-way discussion at this point. Expect to participate in follow-up over time".
* Rally the other employees who might have an issue with the difficult person, too - carefully. Sometimes, a group approach, she stated convinces the boss that the impact of the behavior is wider and deeper than she had originally determined. However, she stressed that care should be taken with this approach. "Know what works with your boss. You want to solve your problem, not make it look as if you are rabble-rousing and ganging up on another employee".
* If these approaches fail to work, try to limit the difficult person's access to you. This, she said, is usually done when "You protect the needs of your business, but avoid working with the person when possible. Leave voluntary committees, Choose projects he or she does not impact. Don't hurt your own career or your business, but avoidance is an option".
* Transfer to a new job within your organisation. "Depending on the size of your company, you may never have to work with this difficult coworker again. Fleeing is definitely an option," she said.
* If all else fails, you can quit your job. "What, flee, you ask? But, I wasn't the employee with the problem. I was not the difficult coworker. All I tried to do was my job. You're right. But, what price, in terms of your happiness and success, are you willing to pay to stay? You need to decide whether the good in your current situation outweighs the bad or whether the bad outweighs the good", she added.