4 Productive Ways to Handle a Challenging Employee

As a lab manager, you move seamlessly from one area to another throughout your workday — from being hands-on at the bench to updating senior management, from doing inventory checks to analyzing QA/QC reports. All these tasks work toward your prime responsibility of keeping your lab running efficiently. But what happens when you have a difficult employee on your team?

Investing in your team is time well spent — even if that means managing a difficult employee. Whether they're becoming disengaged, lacking motivation, or displaying poor performance, a difficult employee's actions could hurt the team's success. Not only can this affect productivity in terms of tests run and their accuracy, but it can also cause a ripple effect on other staff by disrupting the workplace or impacting customer service. Identifying and managing the issue earlier rather than later is best to keep the lab running smoothly.

So, when your lab manager "spidey sense" starts tingling, how should you tackle the problem?

1. Initiate Conversations

Listening is a great start; Forbes ranks it No. 1 out of nine steps to manage difficult employees. In a neutral and unstressed environment, find out as much as possible by listening as they share their perspective. From a simple conversation, you might find out why you're seeing challenging behavior.

You may also receive input from other team members that can help. In larger labs, immediate supervisors can help pinpoint underperformance, errors, job-related lack of skills, or inappropriate conduct and behaviors. QC records such as assay performance, deviation from standards and controls, and other validation information can also show failures. If the employee's performance is top-notch, it may be that other team members simply do not want to share bench space with the person due to a personality conflict.

Confrontation is never comfortable, but you don't have to brave it alone. Seek the advice of others within your organization to gain new perspectives on the situation. This can help you guide your employee through the difficult patch and manage them effectively.

2. Identify the Employee's Pain Points

During your conversation, you should get a better idea of the root of the problem. Personality traits aside, if you're seeing problems where previously there were none, the team member is probably finding it difficult to handle workplace stress, perhaps from a family issue or from frustration with their role. Ask the following questions to find out where the stress is coming from:

  • Do you have a clear sense of what's expected of you at work? A lack of guidance or instruction for a new employee or for a new procedure, along with not knowing where to go for advice, could be undermining their confidence.
  • Do you feel safe at work? Perhaps they're experiencing undetected bullying or physical dangers from operating equipment.
  • Is stress spilling over from home into the workplace? Not all people feel comfortable bringing personal issues to a manager on their own, even if they are impacting work life.
  • Are you bored or do you feel unrecognized? For some, not being challenged or recognized leads to a lack of engagement and problem behavior.

3. Develop a Written Plan for Improvement

Managing difficult employees takes time and resources. According to Psychology Today, shifting from a reactive to proactive mindset can make all the difference. Once you've identified the problem's source, find out what company resources are available to you as a manager. Human resources may offer guidance along with tools for extra training if that's what the employee requires.

In addition to giving clear instructions and consistent feedback, set consequences and keep records to help guide your employee. Human Resources Online recommends setting clear expectations in a written plan that includes a timeline for action and how progress will be measured. Keeping thorough records will indicate if they have made improvements or if the support strategies are helping. The records will also show when they've failed to make changes or respond to strategies, so you can try other approaches.

When setting measurements for improvement, it's best to pick your battles — focus on the area of work or behavior that needs the most input and will lead to the greatest impact. It's also a good idea to separate the person from the issue, as this avoids making it personal.

4. Know When to Make the Tough Call

If multiple attempts to help the employee improve don't seem effective, you may have to terminate their employment. If the behavior is getting worse despite offering support, retraining, and setting consequences, leaving the difficult employee in place can damage staff morale, customer service, and company reputation. In a lab setting, it can also affect safety and may even disrupt results or quality controls, which can lead to loss of certification. Harvard Business Review recommends you don't delay once you've decided to let someone go — stay clear and concise, and deliver the news with compassion in a private setting. Having support from HR or senior management is preferable.

Managing difficult employees is a challenge that no lab manager relishes. However, it's an opportunity for personal and company growth if handled positively. Successfully turning a difficult employee into a productive and engaged one can be a win-win for your lab and your staff. Even if termination is the only viable solution, maintaining professionalism will show how dedicated you are to leading a strong team.

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Amanda Maxwell
Science Writer

Amanda is a freelance science writer and digital space explorer; she enjoys translating the excitement of complex subjects into everyday language and releasing the story hidden inside each academic paper. Her writing has appeared on Now for Northrop Grumman; Canadian Blood Services’ blog, R.E.D.; Accelerating Science, for Thermo Fisher Scientific; and Salmon-Net.org. With a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine, a PhD in protein chemistry/small animal critical care nutrition, and a certificate in web communications/marketing, she brings a wealth of clinical, laboratory, and digital savvy into her writing.