Workforce Emergency


How to rescue difficult employees and turn them into star players

“The hospitality industry always used to have an extensive pipeline of talent waiting in the wings if an employee didn’t work out, and now that pipeline is not there in the same way,” said Sarah Diehl, founder and principal, Empowered Hospitality. “Managers, owners, and leaders in hospitality are much more willing to retain current employees, especially people they’ve put a lot of time and effort into onboarding and training, rather than eliminating someone without putting in that effort first because they know that role will not be easy to fill.”

Difficult workers in the hotel industry not only can prove unproductive, but they can create a difficult environment for other team members and negatively impact the customer experience. However, difficult workers often are not without potential, and leadership and coaching can help seemingly lost employees not only turn around their efforts in the short term but take crucial steps toward becoming standout members of the team.

It starts with engagement from leadership.

With difficult employees, Marie McIntyre, author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics,” says the road to redemption starts with understanding the problem.

“If you can get some idea of the cause, then you can get some idea of the solution,” McIntyre said.

Diehl agreed.

“You really have to know where the difficulty is stemming from to understand how to address it,” Diehl said. “And that starts with sitting down with the employee, explaining to them the behavior that’s problematic, so they clearly understand what you’re observing from your perspective, and then asking them what they feel might be causing this so they can commit to eliminating the behavior.”

Maxine Attong, a leadership specialist, coach, and author, said that a leader must be honest when considering if their view of a team member as difficult is biased, such as because the team member is outside the leader’s affinity group or the leader has allowed past issues the employee had to affect the present.

“It is quite easy to label a team member as difficult or challenging, and it’s less easy for the team member to rid him or herself of this label,” Attong said. “The leader needs to reflect on the question, ‘What makes the team member difficult to me?’ The answer will bring clarity on the reasons for the label and the solution becomes clearer.”


In that vein, McIntyre said, managers should consider if they’re managing in a supportive and helpful way.

“Are you doing anything that might be creating some of these issues?” McIntyre asked. “Especially if it’s more than one person having these problems, you really need to take a look at yourself.”

Too often, McIntyre said, managers fail to speak to difficult employees about their behavior, resorting instead to what she calls “psychic management.”

“As a manager, you see an employee problem that is troublesome to you, and you think about it and you keep thinking about it, but you don’t ever talk to the person about it,” McIntyre said. So, in those cases, the employee often doesn’t even know their behavior is considered a problem.

“Situations like this need courage,” Attong said. “The leader must have the courage to call the team member out, to name the behavior, and to apply the relevant organizational policies and procedures to limit the behavior when necessary.”

McIntyre said she sees two major reasons that managers frequently are reluctant to have critical conversations with difficult employees – they want to avoid an uncomfortable discussion and they lack the training and skills to hold that conversation.

“Nobody’s really born knowing how to be a good performance manager or a good coach,” McIntyre said. “There are some skills and strategies that are helpful in having those conversations, and I think once people learn the skills and have a roadmap for the conversation, it can be much more comfortable.”

Diehl said she has experienced this challenge firsthand.

“Having previously been a manager in hospitality, I know that sometimes it’s easy to feel unsupported or to go into conversations with difficult employees not having a script, not really being prepared, not having someone necessarily who can help you through those conversations,” she said. “I would encourage managers and leaders to seek out a mentor or a coach or an HR resource, or someone who can help you learn how to have these conversations, because when you aren’t comfortable having these conversations directly, these issues do tend to fester and become more and more serious.”

“Nobody’s really born knowing how to be a good performance manager or a good coach. There are some skills and strategies that are helpful in having those conversations, and I think once people learn the skills and have a roadmap for the conversation, it can be much more comfortable.”

Diehl added that leaders should aim to snuff out problematic behavior early by setting clear expectations, reinforcing them, and holding team members accountable. Addressing issues when they’re small helps prevent them from turning into major problems. However, it can be difficult for an organization, especially in the fast-paced world of hospitality, to develop a pattern of coaching in the moment and addressing little issues as they arise.

“It’s really important to create a culture within your team or within your company where regular coaching and counseling on small problems is just part of your day-to-day style,” Diehl said.

McIntyre said speaking with difficult employees about their issues shouldn’t be a confrontation.

“It’s a helpful business conversation between two adults about a business issue and focused on how to solve a business problem,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre said managers cannot simply have a “one-and-done” conversation but will need to manage a series of conversations to ensure progress. Based on those conversations, leaders can tailor solutions to an employee’s individual circumstances, Diehl said, such as by providing developmental opportunities, linking with a coach or mentor, or resetting expectations about their behavior or efforts.

Unfortunately, some employees won’t respond to coaching and crucial conversations, no matter how well it may be handled, but others will embrace the opportunity and show a determination to grow and improve. Helping an employee look at the big picture of their career and how their behavior is impacting it can have a profound influence on them. In some cases, Diehl said, an unproductive employee might be bored or unchallenged in their work, so mapping out their career path or giving them new challenges could be a helpful way to get them on track.

“It can be very helpful to understand what’s important to them at work and with their career and help them see how what they’re doing is going to get in the way of that,” McIntyre said. “Sometimes people just don’t think about the bigger picture.”

In the end, Diehl said, engaging with an employee about their challenges can build a stronger relationship with them.

“Showing them empathy in that conversation and a genuine desire to help them improve can create loyalty in a way that very few other things can,” Diehl said. “It’s very powerful.”

Managing difficult employees and DISRUPTIVE behaviors



According to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), there are numerous reasons why an employer would want to proactively manage challenging employees instead of simply hoping the problem resolves itself. Chief among them, and highly applicable to the hospitality industry, is the notion that happy employees are more productive than their disgruntled counterparts, and they can elicit higher levels of customer satisfaction from guests as a result.

Based on research published by SHRM, there are four key forms of disruptive behaviors most commonly exhibited in the workplace. These need to be addressed as quickly as possible, before the negative attitudes of unhappy employees wind up affecting the rest of the team and tanking morale.


managing difficult employeesThough sometimes perceived as a harmless way to pass the time, gossiping is a vicious behavior where an individual repeatedly reveals sensitive, personal information about others, regardless of whether the statements are true.


This behavior pattern typically is displayed through rude or disrespectful language, but it can manifest itself physically, as well, which can include violent actions such as slamming doors or throwing things.


Though this behavior can fall within the incivility category, it’s typically less overt. Bullying can commonly be subtle, including social isolation, manipulation, and the use of condescending or contemptuous language. This behavior can be more challenging to spot as it often happens out of the sight of others, thus making it one of the most difficult behaviors to eliminate.


This behavior typically manifests itself in an employee’s flat-out refusal to follow an employer’s lawful and reasonable instructions. Employees exhibiting this behavior are often attempting to subvert a manager’s authority or feel as if a particular job or task is beneath them.


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