How to Deal With Difficult Employees in Your Agency

Esther Cohen
Esther Cohen Mar 4, 2021 6 min read

Learn how to deal with difficult employees and boost workplace morale in our latest guide.

Every agency has them…

...rockstar employees who turn in stellar work one week, go AWOL the next; genius designers who can’t work in a team; coding ninjas who can’t stick to deadlines to save their lives.

Difficult employees are a part and parcel of every workplace. But in an agency environment where there’s always a deadline around the corner, your work can’t be held hostage by temperamental talent.

If you can’t (or won’t) fire these employees, how do you get them to be productive, consistent and better team players? 

While I don’t promise a magic panacea, I will share some insight on working with - and getting the most out of - your worst employees. 

 

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Are They Difficult or Are They Toxic?

There are difficult employees, and there are toxic employees.

You need to tell them apart.

Difficult employees are otherwise good performers who have certain quirks and peculiarities that impact their ability to deliver consistently.

Say a great coder who has difficulty communicating well. Or a designer who likes to work alone instead of with a team.

While a difficult employee can hold back a team, they don’t actively impact the morale, productivity, and happiness of their colleagues - at least not debilitatingly so.

Toxic employees, however, radiate negativity. They put down their teammates, discourage creativity, and actively dampen workplace morale. These employees neither perform well themselves nor do they let others thrive.

Before you get down to the task of dealing with difficult employees, ascertain which camp do they fall into: difficult or toxic. You can do this by:

  • Asking their direct managers for performance reports
  • Interviewing their colleagues for feedback
  • Surveying clients they’ve worked with in the past

With difficult employees, it makes sense to invest the energy and resources necessary to get them back on track.

But with toxic employees, your priority should be to get them out as quickly as possible. 

 

Document Everything

How do you know that someone is difficult?

Does it show up in their work records?

Do you have subjective evidence in the form of manager complaints?

Or is it just based on rumors and gossip?

When you’re dealing with something this sensitive (personally, professionally, and legally), it’s important to collect proof of any underlying issues. You don’t want to hold an intervention without being sure that there is an issue in the first place.

There are several approaches to spotting disengaged, difficult employees, such as:

1. Performance Records

Performance records can be a reliable indicator of a difficult employee - provided you have accurate, consistent records.

An employee who constantly misses deadlines, shows erratic work patterns (frenetic activity one week, radio silence the next week), and low realized rate per project is likely a source of concern. 

Detailed task records are a great help here, but if you can tie task performance to financial performance, you get powerful insight into the real impact of poor employee productivity.

For instance, the Workamaig Time Productivity analysis report shows you the actual billable hourly rate for each employee. 

This is a good way to compare employee performance across their cohort. An employee with a particularly low hourly rate can indicate an issue. If you can couple this up with task performance over an extended period, you can find issues early.

 

2. Employee Feedback and Engagement Tools

While performance records help, they only paint a partial picture. To zoom in on the details, you need feedback collected from the employee’s colleagues.

If you aren’t doing so already, consider creating an employee engagement and feedback program. Your goal should be to:

  • Measure employee engagement objectively
  • Discretely collect feedback about managers and employees
  • Promote your company culture

Strive to collect both objective and subjective feedback.

Subjective feedback can be in the form of a simple survey. For instance, TINYPulse sends out these surveys to its employees to understand their concerns, gauge their morale, and spot issues with coworkers.

(Image source)

An objective approach would be to create a questionnaire and ask employees to rate themselves, their colleagues, and their managers on a sliding scale.

For instance, tools like CultureAmp allow you to create questionnaires to evaluate the performance of managers/coworkers.

A mix of both these approaches is recommended since it can help you spot an issue and affix a hard number to its severity.

 

3. Gossip, Conversations, and Office Chatter

Office gossip and casual conversations are hardly the most scientific approach to spotting difficult employees, but they can be the most effective.

So much of what happens in a workplace goes unsaid and unreported to management. A great deal of everyday strife just remains confined to the daily office chatter.

While I don’t ask you to join in on the gossip (or even encourage it), it helps to keep an ear to the ground.

Try chatting up with your employees - as a colleague and a friend, not just as a boss. A few casual, friendly conversations can often reveal more than any survey or interview. 

In general, don’t just be upper management that stays aloof from the employees. The more you bring them into the fold (and vice-versa), the better it will be for morale, and the more you’ll understand their problems.

 

 

Dealing with Difficult Employees

If you’ve spotted a difficult employee, how do you get them back on track? 

There is honestly no one-shot cure for dealing with a difficult employee. Every situation will be different and will demand unique solutions. 

However, there are certain principles that can help you zero-in on the root problem and find a solution.

1. Identify the Problem

“Difficult” is a matter of perspective. What’s difficult for one person is routine for another. It’s astonishing the number of employees who don’t even know that they are difficult to work with.

The first step, therefore, is to:

  • Talk to the employee in question
  • Identify where they’re going wrong
  • Identify why you think they’re going wrong

The third part is crucial. Merely telling someone that their behavior is affecting others isn’t enough; you need to tangibly identify how and why it’s affecting others.

For example, if an employee is habitually late, you can tell them how it affects other deliverables and upsets the entire project schedule. Many employees don’t know the complexities of project scheduling and will be happy to change once they see the impact of their (non) performance.

It’s important that you criticize their behavior, not them directly. People get defensive when you critique them. But when you critique their behavior and tie it to things they presumably care about - colleagues, clients, and the company - they are more willing to listen.

 

2. Offer Clear Feedback

Many so-called “difficult” employees are willing to change.

Except that they don’t know what to change.

When you offer feedback to any employee, be clear and specific in what you want them to change.

Identify:

  • The specific behavior that’s impacting others
  • How this behavior is impacting them
  • What are the tangible effects on performance and morale
  • What are some ways they can rectify this behavior

Clarity in communication is crucial for fixing employee issues. Merely telling them that they have a problem isn’t enough; you need to offer pointed advice on how they can go about correcting it.

 

3. Give Them Autonomy

Fixing a difficult employee sounds like a call for micromanagement, but the opposite often works better.

A McKinsey study, for instance, found that employee happiness and workplace autonomy are highly correlated.

In the context of our problem, the lack of workplace freedom often means that employees have to work hours, locations, and with teams they don’t like. This can cause them to act out in ways that impact workplace performance.

For instance, an employee who needs to spend more time at home because of a family situation might not perform well if you ask them to come to work every day. If you give them some autonomy to set their own hours, they might be happier - and more productive - working remotely.

This is a dual-edged sword, of course. You have to establish boundaries. But offering employees certain freedoms in their hours, work-from-home days, and even choice of tools can be useful - as long as it doesn’t disrupt the rest of the team.

 

4. Keep it Private

The easiest way to lose a difficult employee is to publicly bad-mouth them in front of their colleagues.

This not only paints you in a bad light (other employees will suspect you bad-mouth them behind their backs too), it also sabotages any chance you have of reaching out to the problem employee. Worse, it jeopardizes any relationship the employee might have in the workplace.

Whatever issues you’re working through, keep it private. The feedback and corrective action should not be shared with anyone, least of all the employee’s coworkers.

 

5. Point Out the Consequences

The carrot approach works great, but sometimes, you have to use the stick.

Employees should know that there are real consequences to their actions. These consequences should be:

  • Absolute, i.e., there should be no leeway given to anyone if they breach a certain boundary
  • Consistent, i.e., the consequences should apply every time the boundary is breached

These consequences should be balanced with the severity of the fault. Don’t threaten to fire someone who had an outburst once, but if someone is constantly rude to everyone and tardy with their work, a firing might well be in order.

 

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6. Deal With the Superstars

A big challenge for agencies is dealing with difficult superstar employees. The quality of their work is essential for your position as a creative leader. But their behavior also makes it impossible for others to work with them.

How you treat such employees will essentially dictate the culture of your agency.

If you treat them with kid gloves, it essentially turns your agency into an elitist place where only the superstars can thrive. While this can help you churn out great work, it also makes it difficult to scale your agency and alienates average employees.

If you censure your superstars too much, you might build up a reputation as “unfriendly”. This can deter other superstars from joining your agency. While it can keep the ship stable, agencies need their rockstars to be creative leaders.

You have to adopt a balanced, measured approach.

It might sound unfair, but you have to accept that your superstars will get some extra wiggle room compared to others. But this wiggle room shouldn’t be so much that others feel left out. 

Deal with your superstars just as you would with anyone else. Just give them slightly (emphasis on ‘slightly’) higher room for error if you want to retain them.



Over to You

Dealing with difficult employees is part and parcel of the agency experience. From tardy workers to outright rude people, difficult employees come in all shapes and hues.

Listening to their problems, identifying solutions, and setting boundaries is the only way to get the most out of your worst-performing employees.

Another way to get more out of your employees is to use better project management software. By switching to an agency-focused management tool like Workamajig, you can get incredible insight into your workers’ performance.

Click the link below to get a free personalized demo!

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About The Author

Esther Cohen

Esther Cohen

Esther, Workamajig’s current Marketing Manager, joined the team back in ‘14. She's a Jersey girl at heart with plenty of NY grit from her time across the river. Like most credentialed marketing gals, she’s always got a good cup of coffee and would love to hear from you at estherc@workamajig.com.

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