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Nightmare Employees

How to deal with difficult personalities

difficult employeeAggressive, Demeaning, Arrogant, Insubordinate, Untrustworthy, Demanding, Unproductive. Ever have a nightmare employee? You know, the one that gets on your nerves you before you can even grab a cup of coffee in the morning. Some difficult personalities are extremely overbearing. Others can deposit a dark cloud over the entire office.

One of the biggest challenges in dealing with nightmare employees is remaining professional. It’s hard to ignore a difficult person who sits in the next cubicle. It’s extremely trying when they are arrogant, unyielding or just down right rude. It’s even worse when they have a drug or alcohol problem. Especially when they come to work smelling of alcohol.

So how can you handle a difficult employee? Well, you can pray the employee will tell you they are moving across country tomorrow. Or you can hope that your co-worker will be transferred to a new department. But wishing for them to change is not the answer.

Figuring out how to deal with them is your best option. Keep in mind; everyone comes into the workplace with his or her own set of issues. While it can be tough not to look at it that way, most of the time, their attitude has nothing to do with you. Here are descriptions of six difficult employees and some ways to cope with them:

Perfectionists These people usually have their own set of issues. It’s hard for them to let go. They are never satisfied with their work and are probably their own worst critic. They take forever to get a project or assignment done, because they are always trying to tweak it. The best way to deal with someone like this is to set a deadline and stick to it.

The Perfectionist also has a hard time with criticism. For instance, if the Perfectionist gets an almost perfect review at work, they will focus on the part that they didn’t do well in, instead of looking at the overall score. Help your coworker see the bigger picture instead of focusing on the small stuff. You need to help them relax and encourage them to “Let Go!”

Negative Employees There are actually several types of negative employees: pessimists, criticizers and just down right negative personalities.

Pessimists see the glass as half empty. Nothing ever seems to go right for them. If the pessimist were on the first commercial space ship, their reaction would be “Yeah, the trip to the moon was exciting, but the food was real bad and the ride was so long!”

Criticizers displace many of their own anxieties onto others. They criticize others to make themselves look and/or feel better. Typically they are the ones who make fun of others, pointing out things like who is the worst dressed. Often they seem to pick fights with others for no particular reason. They’ll disagree just for the sake of disagreeing.

While you need to keep in mind that his or her insecurities are at work, it’s extremely difficult to be around someone who’s negative or critical. Criticizers can affect your mood. Unchecked they can create a black cloud over the entire office.

Supervisors can help negative employees by focusing on their strong points, pointing out where they excel. Developing an area they can take charge of also helps to build a positive attitude. Finally, discussing performance on an ongoing basis can be a positive reinforcer.

If you are not the supervisor, complimenting someone on job well done can help keep their attention on the “upside” rather than the “down side” of life.

Dictators/Autocrats These people can be very trying in the workplace. They will walk all over you if you let them. This type of personality can be especially troubling if they are not your supervisor.

The Dictator/Autocrat will tell you how to do your job or make lots of demands on you. They will stomp all over you if you let them. The best way to handle this type is not to allow it in the first place.

There are different ways that you can handle the situation. It is helpful to use “I statements”. For example, say “I feel uncomfortable when you try and tell me how to do my job. I’ve been working here for two years now, and I know how to do that.” Or, “Although I appreciate your advice, I will handle my work the way that I normally do, and perhaps it is best for you to concentrate on your job.”

If you are not the supervisor and this person continues to harass you, take it to your boss and insist that you will not be treated that way.

“Out To Lunch” Employees There’s usually one person in the office who never does their fair share. This is the employee who takes long breaks, is making personal phone calls or constantly socializes. These employees work best with a lot of structure. Although, many employees complain about micromanagers, this personality type definitely needs it.

If you are not the supervisor, you can still talk to your colleague, particularly, if you are the one picking up the slack. Try not to be too critical. If you criticize they may focus on the criticism instead of listening to the problem. Using “I statements” helps ward off defensiveness.

For instance, if you had to complete their project say, “I was upset on Wednesday when you left that assignment for me to do. Please check with me in the future if you need my help and I’ll let you know if I am available.” If the person continues this behavior, talk with your supervisor.

Substance Users/Abusers If an employee has an alcohol or drug problem, speak with your manager privately. If you are friends, you may want to approach the subject delicately. But, be careful. You might be treading in deep water.

Always pursue substance abuse issues cautiously. Get advice before you act. If you can smell alcohol on the worker, or can tell that they are using drugs, tell your boss immediately. So the situation can be examined on the spot. When, there are no obvious signs, keep notes, so that you can build evidence of the problem.

Most companies are required to have written policies on handling substance abuse. Read your employee handbook to get clear ideas of how you can pursue the issue. If your immediate supervisor does not respond, talk to someone in human resources. If you work for a small company and there seems to be no action to your complaint, call your local Department of Labor or the Labor Board.

Grouches/Moody Employees These people can be a nuisance. But they are less dangerous than other personalities. When a coworker seems to “cop an attitude” try asking them if everything is OK.

Usually they will respond, “Yes, why?” This opens the door for you to say something like, “You don’t seem to be in a good mood today. Is there anything wrong?” In my experience, people will either calm down or apologize and say what is bothering them. This doesn’t mean you should become a therapist, but at least it will break the tension.

Dealing with difficult personalities can be challenging. While supervisors may be tempted to fire them, research has shown that the best alternative is to learn how to handle the person and keep them in their job. Firing someone is not always the solution because it is costly to hire and train a new employee.

The next time you are faced with a difficult person try to view it as a learning experience. Becoming a better communicator will help you diffuse problems as they arise. And in the long run, being able to deal with all types of personalities will be a feather in your cap. One you can use to move up the ladder

About Cynthia Steele-Pucci

Cynthia Steele-Pucci, M.S., is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Nationally Certified Counselor specializing in the areas of career and life planning, and adolescent behavior problems. Over the past thirteen years, Cynthia has gained experienced from working in social service agencies, social work organizations, juvenile and court related settings and currently as a therapist for a family based, pastoral counseling center.


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