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Dealing with difficult co-workers

When should HR intervene?

By Elaine Varelas, 10/01/2007

The word intervention can conjure up some pretty icky images - especially if you're a connoisseur of reality television. You may picture "the subject" being completely out of control, either strung out on drugs or in an alcohol-induced fog. There is also the obligatory cramped room filled with earnest, yet frightened-looking relatives and friends hoping to help in some way. In addition to empathizing with the involved parties, the whole scene can make you feel anxious or uncomfortable.

But intervention doesn't have to be such a negative word. In fact, it often leads to great results, especially in the workplace. When it comes to dealing with difficult co-workers, however, HR managers may struggle with when and how to intervene. They don't want to over-react every time an employee has a tough day, but they also need to get involved before an individual or the organization are put at risk.

A range of reasons

Difficult co-workers are everywhere-and at one time or another we have all been one! There is a range of reasons people may be difficult at work. They could just be having a bad day because they were up all night with a crying baby, missed the commuter train, broke a heel, or spilled coffee on themselves in the rush to work. They could have an ongoing personal or family issue; maybe they are going through a divorce, are having trouble finding quality childcare, have a substance abuse problem, are caring for a sick parent, or are facing an illness themselves. It may also be a workplace or job issue. They may be overwhelmed with their responsibilities, bored in their job, or clashing with their boss.

These problems can manifest themselves in a variety of behaviors-from annoying to dangerous. Sometimes co-workers are just aggravating: they clip their fingernails at their desks or leave dirty dishes in the communal kitchen sink. On the other extreme, some may become violent. Then there are those behaviors in the middle: passive-aggressive or nasty comments, bad-mouthing in the office, all-around grumpiness, or a complete inability to communicate with peers or subordinates.

Intervention strategies

Just as difficult behaviors run the spectrum, so do intervention strategies. There are times when it doesn't make sense for HR managers to get involved-they can't be the dirty dishes police. There are also cases when intervention is top priority, such as when there is a case of violence, either at home or the workplace. HR managers should also intercede when there is any legal risk to the company or its employees (most HR managers are all too familiar with the litany of litigation risks).

At the low end of the intervention spectrum, HR managers can assist employees in resolving situations on their own. In fact, an important role of HR should be to empower individuals to deal with their own conflicts. Ideally, the organization has tools, processes and referral networks in place to help employees do that. HR managers can refer employees to an employee relations specialist, an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), a mentor program, or a training and development firm for guidance.

HR managers should also intervene when they detect a troubling pattern of behavior. If one employee complains about a manager, it could be a personality conflict. But if several do, it raises a red flag. The situation becomes a liability because the organization could be susceptible to losing valuable employees because of one problem manager.

Many times, people aren't even aware of their behavior, and if they are, they don't always realize what an impact their conduct is having on their colleagues. HR managers can help troubled or troublesome employees by educating them and offering resources to help.

It can be intimidating to confront an employee who is displaying erratic or trying behaviors, but it is an HR manager's job (often alongside the worker's supervisor) to address the issue. It can be even more daunting when the difficult employee is a member of leadership. It may seem risky for HR managers to get involved because they don't want anyone from the leadership team to "shoot the messenger." But these are the situations HR managers need to step into even more quickly.

When HR managers find out about a difficult co-worker they should analyze the issues right away and identify the source and the appropriate support or action needed for resolution. Has this person traditionally been a solid employee who suddenly became difficult? Is this a manager who is typically demanding, but has turned the corner toward abusive? What is really going on? And what assistance can HR offer? HR may be able to provide the support needed through their own staff, or by making a referral to an appropriate external resource. These interactions can be very challenging, but the value of creating and maintaining a safe and positive work environment cannot be overlooked. Escalation is not the outcome anyone wants.

Stay connected

The best way to deal with difficult co-workers is to address the problem (or help the employee address the problem) before it becomes a pattern. To do this, HR managers need to stay connected in the workplace. They need to have good eyes and ears "on the floor" to give them warning when there may be a crisis brewing. Establishing open lines of communication and having an open door policy is a great start. Of course, HR managers shouldn't just have an open door and wait for employees to seek them out. They should also walk through that door and out of their office so they know what is really going on.

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