Dealing with Difficult People at any time can be a challenge, at work it is even more stressful. How to make dealing with difficult people at work easier is about how you set boundaries and expectations from the beginning.

Dealing with Difficult People is all about how you start the relationship. Focus on behaviour that is productive and professional. Remember, ‘where focus goes, energy flows’. So, be clear what is, good and bad behaviour (misconduct), document it and manage it!

Behaving badly, in the work place is often a matter of opinion. To ‘err is human’, we all make mistakes, at times displaying poor judgement. Therefore, to keep everyone playing nicely, in the work sandpit, focus on good behaviour and make it clear what is acceptable and not right from the beginning.

Consequently, having the company vision, mission and values statement as your business mantra of how ‘we operate around here’ it vital. Repeat it in all your documentation, discussions and how you manage.  This is how you define your company culture and make it stick.

OK, there will be occasions, unfortunately, when we will all do the wrong thing, and someone will behave badly.  How you deal with it will make all the difference in the moment and in the future.

That is why, a company policy around performance and misconduct is necessary. A policy alone is not enough though, Document and follow the procedure associated with the policy as well. Further, you need to ensure every one of your employees knows the policies and procedures and confirms their understanding with their signature.

Make it clear up front what you consider to be bad or unacceptable behaviour. Thereby, providing you with a clear set of boundaries around acceptable conduct. Further, this clarification will be your best guide for steering your employee’s behaviour both at work and when representing the business externally. If alcohol is involved, people’s behaviour can change dramatically, so making it clear and understood about what acceptable behaviour up front is, will make a huge difference to how you can legally respond to any incident.

Following are two examples of bad behaviour cases that caught media attention, one resulted in a finding in favour of the employer while the other did not:

A Qantas pilot on a stopover had too much to drink with colleagues as well as imbibing marijuana resulting in some questionable behaviour. Although he was a very good pilot with a long-standing track record of good behaviour Qantas followed their policy and procedure in its disciplinary action which resulted in the Pilot’s dismissal from employment.

The Pilot argued that it was unfair and a “One off incident”, however the Fair Work Commissioner ruled in favour of Qantas. The finding in favour of Qantas was due to their following their own policies and procedures in a fair procedure. Whereas, the Pilot lost the claim of Unfair Dismissal because according to the Evidence he had chosen to intoxicate himself.

Another very interesting and complex case is Zeb Dewson vs Boom Logistics. Dewson argued his dismissal from employment was unfair, on the basis it was harsh and unreasonable.

Boom Logistics asked a consultant to investigate the work environment on some of their sites. The consultant reported that the worksites were toxic, rife with bullying and harassment posing a serious risk to the health and safety of the employees. Further, the consultant recommended addressing the issues in various ways including potentially relocating some of the employees to other sites and taking disciplinary action with others.

The Company held a tool box talk on one of the problematic sites with the team including supervisors. At the meeting, management informed the team, that the toxic culture had to change. Further, that they would take actions to ensure it did change. After the meeting a person informed one of the managers of an incident in which Dewson assaulted him.

There is a of detail in this case which I will summarise as follows:

In short, it was the basis of this information that resulted in the employer dismissing Dewson from their employment. It unfolded in the Fair Work Commission proceedings that while Dewson had problematic behaviours, the procedures undertaken by the employer where equally problematic.

Firstly, they were trying to remedy a situation they had allowed to unfold, but they went about it without a fair process. They did not investigate the allegations made against Dewson or the sequence of events of the alleged incident. They combined several incidents together to form an opinion about Dewson rather than look at the facts and provide substantial evidence.

Secondly, there was a ‘head butting incident’ at a Christmas Party two years before, that Dewson apparently committed however it was not address at the time it occurred.
That incident alone if addressed appropriately, could have been grounds for his dismissal from employment for serious misconduct. Furthermore, it could be argued by the employees including Dewson, that such behaviour had no consequence, was therefore acceptable because the incident was not appropriately addressed at the time it occurred.

Consequently, the Fair Work Commission found the Dismissal from employment of Dewson to be flawed. This was despite the serious misconduct of Dewson which was not in dispute. This case highlights the importance of following procedural fairness and acting swiftly on any deviance from desired behaviour, but doing so in a calm, legally acceptable and well-structured manner.

Following a legally acceptable and well-structured procedure for a discussion about behaving badly, unprofessionally/inappropriately, (misconduct) is not difficult:

Having good quality procedures and documentation in place makes disciplining an employee much easier.

  • Invite the employee to a discussion as soon as possible, clearly outlining the purpose; to discuss the behaviour in question
  • Allow the employee to have a witness present at the meeting
  • At the discussion draw the employee’s attention to the specific behaviour considered to be inappropriate and reference the company policy
  • Allow the employee time to respond
  • Let the employee know what needs to change and by when
  • Be specific about the time available for improvement to occur
  • Let the employee know what the procedure will be from this point
  • Document the discussion, have the employee sign it and placed on their file
  • Let the employee know what will happen if the problematic behaviour continues, in other words provide them with a warning

The above procedure is a fair and reasonable process. It depends on the nature of the behaviour, as to the consequences. To make it all upfront and clear, this information needs to be in the Company policies and procedures, which each employee must be aware of. Further, if you have a documented procedure relating to a company policy, (which I highly recommend you do) make sure you and your employees follow the procedure especially if dismissal from employment is likely to occur or you risk an unfair dismissal finding.

Reality is that acceptable behaviour is subjective depending on the circumstances:

Often people are not aware their behaviour is problematic because of its effect on others. We are all guilty of saying or doing something we do not realise has a negative effect on others. Consequently, we need to have an opportunity to consider the effect we might be having and how to improve it.

For example:

One of my clients employed a variety of people from various countries, religions, genders and education levels in their logistics team. There was one group of Pacific Islanders including Maoris, Tongans, Fijians, Samoans and others of the Region who all played Rugby and had a friendly rivalry. Often they would play a social game of pass the Rugby ball outside the Logistics building during breaks and down time. They would yell out to each other things like: “Pass it to me you blxxdy Coconut”, Oye you Black Basxerxd and so on with none of them taking offence.

As the acting head of Human Resources Management at the Company, it was my role to pull them to one side and explain why this practice was not acceptable. They represented the Brand of the Company, often wearing T ’Shirts with the Company Logo on. Also, they were outside the building and known to work there. Further, we often had visitors from clients who may not be aware of the friendly rivalry and lack of malice in the shouts.

We collectively agreed that during lunch time they could go across to the near by park and play but change out of their clothes with the log on. Also, we agreed that what they said outside of work was their business but not when they were wearing the company Logo on their clothes.

In conclusion:

The best way to handle difficult people at work is legally and making it clear upfront what is and is not acceptable behaviour.  Get everyone in your business clear about the ‘company culture code’, the behaviour mantras, the policies and procedures.

Do less discipline and more rewarding! It is the age old, ‘Stick and Carrot’ routine, but it is well known that humans respond better to a Carrot or a Reward than a Stick or Punishment. Therefore, make sure your employees know you pay attention to their behaviour.

If you like this article you might also like:

 Emotional Intelligence

 Stress Less

 9 Ways to deal with difficult employees

To book your FREE 15 minute consultation