Difficult Employees

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Laurence Miller, Ph.D.

Coaching and counseling may be considered a more focused and individualized application of education and training that directly addresses a particular employee's problematic behavior in the context of a supervisory session.

The program I've adapted to the needs of business managers grows out of Special Supervisory Agent Hillary Robinette's management protocol for Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and other law enforcement officers. Both coaching and counseling require constructive confrontation of the problem employee's behavior, but it is important to realize that such confrontation need not—indeed, should not—ever be gratuitously hostile, offensive, or demeaning. Professionalism and respect can characterize the interaction of a superior with a subordinate in any supervisory setting, including instruction, coaching, counseling, discipline, or even termination. The focus is on correcting the problem behavior, not bashing the employee. Supervisors should be firm but civil, preserving the dignity of all involved.


The difference between coaching and counseling lies in the focus and emphasis of each. Coaching deals directly with identifying and correcting problematic behaviors. It is concerned with the operational reasons those behaviors occur and with developing specific task-related strategies for improving performance in those areas. Most of the instruction and guidance in coaching comes from the supervisor, and the main task of the supervisee is to understand and carry out the prescribed corrective actions.

For example, a quality assurance inspector who fails to complete reports on time is given specific deadlines for such paperwork as well as guidance on how to word reports so that they don't become too overwhelming. A restaurant waiter who behaves discourteously with customers is provided with specific scenarios to role-play in order to develop a repertoire of responses for maintaining his or her dignity without offending the restaurant's patrons.
Productively applied to the corporate world, the coaching protocol can be viewed as a series of six stages.

1. Define the problem clearly.
This ensures that you and the employee are on the same page and prevents any misunderstanding from the outset. "There have been four customer complaints filed against you for discourteous behavior in the past six months."

2. Identify the effect of the problem.
This objectifies the situation, providing the employee with a general rule of behavior that applies to everyone. That way, the employee can't accuse you of singling him or her out for personal reasons. "When customers experience our staff as being unpleasant to work with, they'll want to take their business elsewhere. In addition, they'll tell other people, which hurts our business still further. Lost business means fewer raises and bonuses and possibly staff cuts. It also makes the atmosphere generally less pleasant to work in. As you recall from our new-hire orientation, courteous speech and behavior is part of the `uniform' we all wear when we're at work."

3. Describe the corrective action.
Be crystal clear about what you expect the employee to do. Repeat it as many times and in as many ways as necessary to be sure he or she understands you. It's amazing how people hear what they want to hear, so leave as little as possible to chance. "There seem to be some common threads in these complaints. Let's review some of these situations and see if we can come up with better responses. You can use these suggestions or feel free to come up with ideas of your own, but the bottom line is that your style of interaction with customers has to change."

4. Demonstrate and role-play as needed.
In the spirit of leaving little to chance, actually act out for the employee the behaviors you want him or her to emulate; then have the employee do it. Repeat until the skill or behavior has been mastered.

"Let's play this out. I'll be the customer and you be you. Show me how you usually handle this kind of problem." [Scene is played out.] "Okay, here's what I'd like you to do differently. This time, you be the customer and I'll be you. Let's run through it again." [Scene is played out with supervisor demonstrating correct behavior.] "See the difference? Now I'll be the customer again and you go back to being you, only this time, let's do it the way I showed you." [Role-play is repeated until supervisor is satisfied that employee "gets it."]

5. Motivate the employee for change.
Although it may sound like a cliché, try to make the coaching sessions seem more like an opportunity and less like a punishment. Employees will take correction and stick to the program to the extent that they feel they have something to gain from doing so; therefore try to inculcate employee buy-in. "We appreciate your efforts to be an aggressive, meticulous, high-producing sales rep and we know that better customer relations means more business, which is better for everyone. People like doing business with reps who make them feel comfortable and welcome. These ways we've discussed of interacting with customers should help you shoot your numbers even higher."

6. Document and summarize.
Again, don't leave things to chance. If a repeat coaching session is necessary, you want written confirmation of what you and the employee already discussed and agreed on. "Okay, I'm noting here that we reviewed this and that we both agree that you're going to make these changes."


Counseling differs from coaching in two main ways. First, it is less task focused and more supportive, empathic, nondirective, and nonevaluative; it seeks to understand the broader reasons underlying the problematic behavior. This is especially appropriate when the difficulty lies less in a specific action or infraction and more in the area of attitudes and style of relating, where there may be a general factor accounting for a range of specific problem behaviors. Second, counseling has less of a top-down flow than coaching and puts more of the burden of change on the supervisee, encouraging the employee to creatively develop his or her own solutions to the problem. In the counseling approach, much of the feedback to the employee may occur in the form of reflective statements, so that a kind of Socratic dialogue emerges, moving the employee increasingly in the direction of constructive problem solving.

Supervisor: Do you know why I asked to speak with you today?

Employee: Well, I guess there have been some complaints about me. (Discussion continues about the nature of the complaints and their consequences.)

Supervisor: I see you've been here three years with a pretty good record. What's been going on lately?

Employee: I dunno, maybe the job's getting to me. Ever since the 2005 downsizing and last February's robbery, it's like everything seems to drag. And the customers seem more of a pain in the butt than ever. There are fewer big deals these days and more of them seem to be these nickel-and-dime small-business operations. Every little thing seems to tick me off. Oh yeah, and things at home haven't been going that great, either. [Some further discussion ensues about job and personal problems.]

Supervisor: Well, I'm glad you told me that, and I understand things have been rough the past couple of months, but I'm sure you understand that we need to maintain a certain standard of professionalism. I'm going to refer you to our EAP for some counseling to help you get your bearings. In the meantime, I'd like you to take the next few days to think of some ways you can improve how you're interacting with the customers. Jot 'em down, in fact, and we'll meet next time to discuss this further. You do your part, and we'll help you get through this, agreed?

Employee: Okay, I'll try.

Supervisor: Well, I need you to do more than try, because the situation does have to change. So get back to me with some specifics next week and we'll take it from there, okay?

Employee: Okay.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from From Difficult to Disturbed by Laurence Miller, Ph.D. Copyright 2007, Laurence Miller. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. Click here for more information about this title.

About the Author(s)

Laurence Miller, Ph.D. (Boca Raton, FL) is a clinical and forensic psychologist, educator, author, speaker, and management consultant. He maintains a private practice in psychology and also works extensively with law enforcement, the judicial system, social service agencies, and private corporations.