Managing Difficult Employees and Situations: How Your EAP Benefit Can Help

Posted on December 30, 2012 by VITAL WorkLife

Few managers enjoy dealing with difficult employees—and often make the task more difficult by burying their heads in the sand, hoping the problem will resolve itself or the employee will move to a different job. Unfortunately, the longer performance issues go unaddressed, the more ingrained those behaviors will become. As a result:

  • You open your organization to wrongful termination suits when an employee is fired for a behavior that's been occurring for some time without comment.
  • Morale suffers when co-workers see employees face no consequences for behaviors that clearly violate stated policies.
  • Good workers like working for good managers—managers who can provide feedback not just about their strengths, but also areas that need improvement or stand in the way of career advancement.

"Many times, employees are unaware of the impact their behavior is having on their co-workers and are grateful for the heads-up," notes Jody Bertram, senior EAP consultant for VITAL WorkLife, citing the example of an employee who might not be aware that her gum chewing is audible and distracting to employees in adjoining cubes. "Managers that provide honest, objective input are often appreciated."

Managers are also called in to mediate situations that have seemingly little to do with the work at hand—such as a manager who was approached by employees irritated that one employee always left the restroom a mess. He called VITAL WorkLife for suggestions on how to approach the employee.

"There are topics that can seem too sensitive or embarrassing to handle, but can be easily resolved," says Bertram. "We recommended that at the next staff meeting, the manager put a short, matter-of-fact discussion about hygiene expectations on the agenda—without singling out any single employee. If the problem had persisted, the manager might have had to confront the employee directly, but that one conversation took care of the problem."

Roles, Relationships & Resources: Resolving Difficulties Before They Arise

The best way to avoid difficult situations arising is by making your expectations loud and clear from the very beginning:

  • Roles should be clearly defined and understood.
  • Relationship boundaries should be clear and communicated openly.
  • Employees should understand which resources, in terms of time, funding and staff, are available to them—and which are not.

As a manager, communicating your expectations and taking action when those expectations are not met are core management skills.

Common Performance Issues: Signs that Something Isn't Working

A single incident of most of the behaviors listed below does not rise to the level of a "performance issue," but when you observe an employee doing them on a regular basis, it's time to address the issue. Here are the most common workplace behaviors that impact employee productivity:

Work Behavior Problems

  • Changes in work performance
  • Impaired judgment
  • Difficulty concentrating or recalling instructions
  • Difficulty working with others
  • Omitting necessary details
  • Procrastination
  • Difficulty meeting deadlines
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of interest or participation
  • Excessive time spent on the telephone on personal issues
  • Marked deterioration in appearance


  • Arriving late or leaving early
  • Excessive excused and/or un-excused absences
  • Frequent Monday/Friday absences, or absences that follow a pattern
  • Extended lunches and/or breaks
  • Time that is unaccounted for
  • Repeated requests for time off by telephone without advance notice

Relationships With Others

  • Edginess, irritability, impatience
  • Overly sensitive, or overly reactive
  • Suspiciousness
  • Intolerance
  • Moodiness
  • Withdrawal
  • Blaming others
  • Increased nervousness
  • Avoidance of co-workers
  • Asking for advances or borrowing money from others

There are often underlying causes for performance issues—such as depression, family issues or chemical dependency—that managers can't be expected to diagnose or fix. For example, an employee having difficulty concentrating, taking long lunches, seeming moody, edgy and irritable, and asking for advances on salary might have a gambling problem, might be going through a divorce, suffering from an illness or caring for an elderly parent.

As a manager, nobody expects you to act as psychiatrist or counselor. It's not your job to figure out why the employee is exhibiting the behavior, but it's your job to ensure the behavior doesn't continue and that work expectations are met. Many times, the most effective and compassionate way to deal with a troubled employee is to refer them to your EAP. In addition, you can always call and ask to speak with a counselor about how to handle tough situations.

"You don't have to handle tough workplace issues on your own," notes Bertram. "The value of having an EAP is that you can refer employees to us for a wide variety of support and counseling services—or call us, yourself, for advice and coaching."

Confronting Performance Issues Head On: How Your EAP Benefit Can Help

Anytime you're uncertain about how to handle a problem or situation, please call VITAL WorkLife for a free, confidential consultation. We're here to help you sort through your options and—whenever appropriate—develop a plan for approaching the employee and creating an objective, behavior-based performance referral.

"Managers who've taken advantage of our EAP services tell us it's helpful to have a sounding board," says Bertram. "Many times, a single call will give them the information or perspectives they need to address the situation on their own. For more complex issues, we'll likely recommend they refer the employee to us."

Making a Performance-Based Referral

Once you become aware of warning signs that signal a potential problem—or have decided to refer the employee for EAP services—it's important to create a written record of your performance concerns, using the following guidelines:

  • Be specific regarding the date, time and place of unsatisfactory job performance or behavioral issues.
  • Provide actual observations, not your opinions, conclusions or hearsay.
  • Keep records confidential.
  • Focus on performance—not on personal problems.
  • Provide factual information that demonstrates the employee's job performance over a period of time.
  • Be objective, fair and consistent.
  • If observed, include examples of satisfactory and excellent work along with the under par performance.
  • Update records on a regular (daily, weekly, monthly) basis.

Your EAP counselor can provide sample Performance Improvement Plans and EAP referral letters. Forms for making Performance-Based Referrals, Chemical Dependency Referrals and Reasonable Suspicion Observation Forms can be downloaded in PDF format from Simply log in and click the "Performance-Based Referrals" link located under Manager Resources on the main page of the member portal after you've logged in.

"It's much easier to confront an employee when you're using objective data," says Bertram. "You can make it clear that you are concerned about their performance, provide an action plan that outlines specific changes and expected time frames—and make sure the employee knows that free, confidential help in achieving those goals is available through the EAP. The EAP is a great way for an employer to accommodate an employee in determining if personal issues are creating barriers for performance success."

Ultimately, the employee alone must decide whether or not to seek out help from the EAP—but specific changes in behavior will be expected regardless of that decision.

While having objective data makes the conversation easier, many managers will still be reluctant to confront the problem because they worry the person receiving the feedback will be defensive or create an awkward situation. It's a common fear, but one that coaching can help.

We Can Help

"If you're not comfortable dealing with conflict, you're not alone," notes Bertram. "One of the most frequently requested EAP services we provide to managers is helping them to improve their conflict resolution and conflict management skills."

Confidential counseling, coaching and support are free to you as part of your EAP benefit. Call anytime you have questions or want information about how to be more effective on the job or in your personal life.

This free, unlimited telephone consultation—available 24/7—is not just for you but also for every member of your family, as well as your employees and their families. Your benefit also includes free face-to-face counseling with master's- and doctorate-level professionals. All you have to do is ask. Access your resources by calling 800.383.1908 or through your VITAL WorkLife App. Click here to learn more about manager/supervisor consultations. 

Helpful Online Resources

Your Member Website offers helpful tools and information designed to help managers and supervisors address performance issues, including the following articles:

  • Challenging a Resistant Employee
  • Difficult Employees
  • SCAMPER Through Conflict
  • Surviving Office Politics
  1. To find these articles, go to, click on member login and enter your user name and password.
  2. On the page that comes up, in the left hand column, click on the "Your Work & Life Resources" button.
  3. In the shaded area at the top of the screen, click on the pull down menu that says "Working," pull down to "Effective Manager" and explore the articles in the category "Dealing with Difficult Employees"

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Contact us to learn more about our EAP resources and how they can enhance well being at your organization!

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