There must be one of those inspirational posters somewhere that
says something about there not being difficult staff just difficult
circumstances. However, experience begs to differ. Social care
organisations are notoriously bad at dealing with difficult staff,
with the preferred option being to write them a glowing reference
so they can go on and be difficult somewhere else.
As in all things, honesty is the best policy and once you
recognise that there is a problem it needs to be dealt with and
discussed. Recognition is often the first difficulty. In a small
organisation, a difficult staff member is easier to spot but has a
greater impact as a result of this.
In social care we like to believe that everyone is a good sort
and is reliable, honest and conscientious. Not so. There are those
whose idea of timekeeping is an exercise in creativity, and others
who would be unable to meet a deadline if it offered them a
When it dawns on you through a fog of deadlines of your own that
someone else is not actually doing what they are supposed to be
doing, you need to plan carefully. There is a poster for that:
“Fail to plan, plan to fail.”
Remember that no matter how difficult the staff member is, and
no matter how difficult it is for you, this member of staff is
responsible for their own actions. And more importantly they are
paid to be responsible for clients who need support from your
Managing difficult staff requires skills in negotiation and
conflict resolution. Staff are mostly “situationally
difficult” rather than impossible characters per se. You
should find out the perspective of the difficult staff member and
adopt a mature approach to handling differences within a
time-limited discussion. The bottom line, however, is there is a
job to be done.
Some staff are at their best when they first arrive – especially
ones who end up being difficult. In your recruitment, you emphasise
to them that they will be listened to, that they’ll be part
of the team; you encourage them to voice their concerns. They
believe you. They have the spirit to speak out, but they are not
listened to and become unpopular in the team. You spent a lot of
time, trouble and money recruiting and inducting them, and now, to
all intents and purposes, you have lost them.
New managers are also often confronted with long-standing
members of staff who are seen as difficult. If you are asked to
sort someone who is difficult out, ask why it has been left to you
and not been dealt with before. There may be some traps set in the
organisational geography that you need to avoid. However, if you do
finally deal with someone that no one else has been able to, your
stock will rise – for a while. But before locking yourself into
conflict with them, get to know them and find out what started it
all. It is possible that difficult staff can become your most
powerful and committed allies for positive change.
Nonetheless, with some folk all the supportive counselling,
target setting, training courses and coaching (all of which should
be the first approaches) in the world will not help. If you want to
go down the disciplinary or poor performance route, get support
from your personnel department early on. And take advice from a
good employment law adviser. If your organisation is too small the
Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society) has a good
Good management is not enough in such situations – but you have
to be able to prove it. Documentation is everything. Write it all
down. It demonstrates what has been done. If capability or conduct
leads to disciplinary action, documentation becomes crucial.
Make sure you have the evidence and that the member of staff has
been properly supervised and managed – otherwise you could lose a
case because you have failed to do anything constructive to resolve
the problem. Above all, deal with it rather than hope the problem
will go away.
Managers need to know that sometimes there is nothing that can
be done with difficult people. Counselling may be appropriate only
to a point; the manager may not be the right person to give it.
Sometimes the best solution is for people to leave and this should
not be seen as failure.
John Burton is an independent consultant; Anthony Douglas is
director of social care and health, Suffolk Council; Kathryn Stone
is director, Voice UK. Additional comments were provided by Des
Kelly, director, Bupa partnerships.
– Keep notes of all discussions.
– If you set deadlines you must keep to them yourself.
– Call in a mediator if you are personally too involved.
– Make sure the difficult member of staff does not have a point –
sometimes the organisation is dysfunctional and needs to change
more than the difficult member of staff.
– Attempt to achieve a permanent solution, not a short-lived fudge,
or else the problem will inevitably come back.
– Get angry and start a fight. It will go to a points decision
and there will not be a winner. You and your team or service will
– Talk about the problem to others behind the staff member’s
back – it will get back to them and you will lose authority.
– Ball out the member of staff in public.
If you have a management problem – our panel is here to help.
John Belcher, chief executive, Anchor Housing Trust
Christine Doorly, regional manager, National Care Standards
Anthony Douglas, director of social care and health, Suffolk
Sheena Doyle, programme manager, Children’s Society
Jane Held, director of social services, London borough of
Tony Hunter, director of social services, East Riding
Steve Jenkin, chief executive, Elizabeth FitzRoy Support
Des Kelly, director, BUPA partnerships
Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, mental health foundation
Daphne Obang, director of social services and housing, Bracknell
Vijay Patel, consultant, voluntary sector
Mike Pinnock, policy, planning and performance manager, North
Jill Reynolds, Open University
Claire Smart, purchasing manager, Gloucestershire social
Kathryn Stone, director, Voice UK
Martin Willis, Programme director, INLOGOV, Birmingham
If you have a case study that you would like our panel to
consider, please call Graham Hopkins on 020 8652 3106 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org