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Construction Safety

Dealing with Difficult Employees

Peter Furst | August 11, 2017

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One of the primary responsibilities of managers and supervisors is to "get the job done," and that is generally accomplished by planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling. In organizations, work is done by delegating it to the workforce. Among the challenges supervisors face is managing the performance of difficult employees.

This challenging phenomenon can also be encountered when working in teams, in work groups, or when having to get another employee to do something that is needed so that you may get your work done or accomplish a goal.

All managers or supervisors at one time or another may be faced with difficult employees or peers. It is their job to effectively deal with them. If the problem is not dealt with quickly and effectively, it will only get worse. In the case of the manager or foreman in construction, they have a number of options available to them in dealing with difficult employees. They also have the added option of disciplining the offending worker or even terminating them due to their positional power. This makes it easier to get compliance when they apply some of these techniques to achieve a change in the worker's stance. This obviously does not apply to peers and others.

When dealing with safety performance, this becomes more challenging on construction sites where the safety practitioner is the one who is generally responsible for ensuring that safe work practices are followed by the workforce. These folks have to basically manage this with limited or virtually no positional power. In many construction organizations, managing production is the responsibility of the foreman or superintendent, and the management of safety performance falls to the safety practitioner.

The safety practitioner generally has to manage the worker's safety performance without adversely impacting the production process. In many organizations, production trumps protection as a matter of course! So, when faced with workers who consistently ignore or half-heartedly follow expected safe work practices, the safety practitioner must basically resort to influencing techniques so as to persuade and solicit cooperation. Following is a discussion of some tools that may improve the chances of getting compliance.

Difficult Situations

Workers go about performing their work in a way that they have done in the past because that method has "worked" for them. It is learned, and over time it becomes "second nature." So if they are asked to change their way of performing the task, they may not want to for a number of reasons. They may deem the suggested method to be more difficult since the worker is not used to doing it in that way. They may perceive that the suggested method is more complicated and as a result will make them less productive. They may make the change in the presence of the safety practitioner but may revert to the "old" way through force of habit. If they are confronted about their failure to follow the new practices, they may provide a variety of excuses, or they may become belligerent.

Workers may think they have good reasons for their negative stance, or they may just be people who are downright difficult. Notwithstanding, this has to be dealt with quickly and effectively for a number of reasons. If the worker is not complying with requirements, they in all likelihood are going to be less than optimally productive or create situations that may be detrimental to the project. Difficult people can negatively impact team (crew) performance as well as morale. They will take away from productive supervisory time because of the need for supervisors to deal with noncompliance issues. Difficult workers become a poor example for others and potentially cause them to disregard requirements as well as impact the whole crew's productivity.

Managers and supervisors have many responsibilities, so if they are spending time dealing with difficult people, it takes them away from more productive work they could and should be doing. Ignoring such a problem and hoping it gets better or goes away on its own is rarely a good strategy. To manage this issue, managers and supervisors must develop the skills to identify and deal with difficult people in an effective way. They must be able to isolate the root cause of the unacceptable employee positions, decisively resolve it, and constructively steer the employee's performance to an acceptable level.

One thing to consider is the difficult person's personality. People react differently to different situations or events. While most employees fall within some "normally acceptable" range of behavior, others have characteristics that may be deemed to fall outside this range. Understanding this will give the supervisor the ability to better deal with that person and that specific situation. It is difficult to "read" a person's mind, but the supervisor can use some broad personality grouping to get a better handle on the problem and adjust their leadership, management, and communication style to effectively resolve things. Some employees are going to be slackers, loners, bullies, complainers, clingers, know-it-alls, pessimists, megalomaniacs, power hungry, oblivious, instigators, narcissists, etc.

Generally, slackers may simply be loafers who are obviously unmotivated, lack drive, take a "laissez-faire" attitude, shirk responsibility, procrastinate, and are generally "low-energy" people. They are easy to identify. The other kind of slacker is one who plans and deliberately underperforms. These are the ones who find seemingly good reasons for taking longer to complete a task, show up late, duck responsibility, act busier than they really are, drag out tasks, avoid doing more work, or do little or nothing when no one is watching. These employees are harder to identify. Both types may do shoddy work, make mistakes, cause problems, and have higher absentee rates.

There are many reasons for slacking off at work. Some may have to do with childhood experiences, where they were not held accountable or poor behavior was tolerated. They may not like the organization they are working for or may have a poor relationship with their supervisor or peers. They may feel that they are not being treated fairly or are not appreciated. Their behavior may be a reaction to what they perceive as unethical organizational positions. They may just be in the wrong job or field. Any one of these reasons can result in underperformance.

In these situations, managers and supervisors must take action and not accept less than acceptable performance, as this may also "infect" other workers. They must clearly define goals and objectives as well as provide regular and constructive feedback often. Pay closer attention to these employees. Define a clear connection between productivity and rewards. Recognize improvement. Enable the employee to be successful. If that employee is totally unsuited for the job, then find a more appropriate position for them if available. More drastic action may be required if improvement is not forthcoming in a reasonable amount of time.

Employees who are hostile generally tend to be oppositional in their approach to most situations they find themselves in. They automatically take an opposing stand to any suggestion, idea, directive, or proposal by finding flaws, pointing out barriers, and raising problems. They will disagree with their peers, may differ with experts, and even challenge management. This may be to show their perceived superiority, greater knowledge, or they want to establish their independence. They may engage in such behavior because they may resent authority, show lack of respect, or they are just "programmed" that way.

Such employees are easy to identify. They have a need to be at the center of the "action" or be in control (see David McClelland's affinity for power). This is especially the case if they feel others are trying to direct or control their behavior. They relish challenging anything and everything. They do not seem to care if they are in the minority and that their views are unpopular, and they will rigorously argue their point of view. This rebellious attitude may have worked for them in childhood (terrible twos), but as adults, they have not found a more constructive or mature way to deal with people.

Supervisors need to have ways with which to deal with employees who hijack meetings or conversations in a calm and robust way. They need to acknowledge the employee's position, explain why it may not be relevant to the situation, and then decisively move on. Management must lead these employees to clearly understand that such repeated behavior is counterproductive for their career as well as unacceptable and that the organization will not tolerate it. Supervisors need to find ways to guide this energy into constructive channels. Find common ground between employee goals and those of the organization as well as provide them with constructive ways to deal with people and situations.

Everyone has an occasional bad day, and everyone can make a mistake, so you don't necessarily have to intervene every single time someone gets off track, falls behind, misses a deadline, says something negative in a meeting, or becomes obstinately negative about something. What is important is to be aware of these instances and take action if the problem persists. People generally don't make a fuss or take a negative stance without a seemingly good reason. More often, bad behavior may stem from things like insecurity, lack of trust, fear of change, the perception of unfair treatment, or some source that may even be outside of the work arena. A blowup at a meeting or some other negative stance probably has less to do with that one thing they are upset about and more to do with how that one thing exemplifies the underlying problem they may be encountering.


Before confronting the "problem employee," it may be useful to consider the possibility that you may somehow have contributed to the problem and the employee's behavior is in response to it. It may be the employee's perception of what you may have said or done. Sometimes we jump to conclusions without really understanding what the other person's concerns or impediments may be. Making an assumption about the cause of the problem usually gets you the "wrong" answer, which is not very useful in managing the situation.

Before taking any action, you need to determine what it is that's causing the employee to behave in an unacceptable way. Many difficult employees are that way simply because such behavior has worked for them in the past. They may not know any other behavior, or they may choose this behavior when they think it will be effective in a given situation. One way of successfully dealing with such a difficult employee is to make the undesirable behaviors no longer effective for them. In many ways, it's like dealing with children. If every time a child throws a tantrum and gets what it wants, that reinforces the behavior. In a way, the same is true for the employee who "blows up" whenever anyone disagrees with them. The employee thinks they have won when people stop disagreeing with them as a result.

The best way to deal with a specific situation is to try to understand the underlying causes that are driving the unacceptable behavior. This requires a conversation that should provide some insight as well as some actionable information. If it is found that the employee is just plain difficult, and there are few if any redeeming factors in retaining them, then they really should be removed from the project, or better yet, they should be managed out of the organization.

There are a unique group of employees who are talented and capable of doing good work but difficult when dealing with peers and supervisors. The reason for the difficulty may come from their focus or their perception of management's expectations. It may be their response to their assessment of the work climate. We have to have the ability to ferret this out and be prepared to effectively manage it.

Assuming that employees are not just difficult by nature, and are just difficult some of the time, then trying to understand the underlying issues that are causing the unacceptable behavior would be the most logical, productive, and all around beneficial approach. This requires a probing conversation that strives to bring out the relevant facts. It requires active or attentive listening. Soliciting clarification serves to signal your interest in understanding the situation as well as ensuring a continuation of the dialogue.

This can be conveyed by both verbal and nonverbal messages—verbally by saying "yes" or "I understand" and nonverbally by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and/or smiling. This approach provides feedback to the speaker, showing that you are listening and are interested. It puts them at ease and, therefore, enhances the potential for a positive outcome. The best approach is to frame questions in such a way that it removes the person's incentive to tell you what they think you want to hear. You have to create a situation in which their fear of saying the wrong thing is negated, and they feel that they can speak freely and truthfully without some negative repercussion. This is the best way to achieve a win-win outcome.

It is generally helpful to find some areas of agreement in any discussion as it puts a positive light on the conversation. This may also signal movement to resolving the issue, which may start with nothing more than a definition of the scope of the problem and an agreement that may convey understanding and movement toward resolution. It is also helpful to speak in positive terms by delineating the things that can be done as opposed to what cannot be done. It is also important to focus on the issues and not on the person.

Exploring alternative ways to resolve the issue at hand may aid in advancing the conversation and creating positive dialogue. Soliciting input from the other person as to what options may work for them is also beneficial to resolving the issue. Usually, this moves the conversation to a rational state from what may have been rife with emotion. Remember when dealing with conflict that words convey a small percentage of the information, and body language and tone of voice play a critical role. Fully 93 percent of what the other person notices, understands, and believes about you comes from their interpretation of your body language and tone of voice. When you allow your emotions to take over, your body language and tone of voice color the exchange in a negative way and hinder an amicable resolution.

Dale Carnegie (author, lecturer, and developer of some of the most popular programs in self-improvement, public speaking, and interpersonal skills) said in How To Win Friends and Influence People, "When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity." By nature, people are both logical and emotional, but emotions often override logic. When dealing with difficult individuals, it is important to be able to empathize and understand but also to be logical. When we are able to think before reacting, the results are often much more positive. When you can deal successfully with difficult people, your coping mechanisms will improve and then you can create win-win situations.

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