Dealing with Workplace Hotheads

Getting along at work is easier said than done.  Mutual accord amongst colleagues is a reciprocal thing – but sometimes it’s unrequited! 

A great workplace buzz relies on the collective valuing their relationships. It needs people who know how to build trust, and who aim to do so. When like minds meet and values are shared, we make productive connections.  There’s nothing like a sense of camaraderie for creating a platform from which your best work will be done.

That’s the best case scenario! But as we all know, sometimes workplace relationships just ain’t that simple. Worst case, they can be really challenging.  One person’s temperament - good or bad - has the potential to set the tone.  If things turn nasty – and sometimes they do - workplace productivity can really suffer, along with morale.  


Difficult employees create confusion. Talking incessantly, not listening, always having the last word, falling short of commitments – those are some of the traits we’re all familiar with. Even more challenging is someone who’s competing for power, privilege or attention.  Or all three! When these behaviours are left unmanaged, conflict begins to simmer - and when it erupts it’s always counter-productive.    

We all have ordinary moments at work occasionally. Maybe we’re going through a sticky patch personally, and impoliteness is a bi-product of that stress.  Usually it’s short lived. But when something goes on for longer, not everyone has the self-awareness to see how it’s impacting on others. And then, look out! 

The reasons behind bad behaviour are a secondary concern. Whatever they are, the behaviour must be addressed and resolved quickly - that’s best practice.  If someone’s behaving badly in your workplace, here are some tips that might help.


Talk constructively with the employee and find out if there’s a deeper issue.  If they’re making barbed comments in one particular colleague’s direction, take them aside and ask them why. They might be apologetic – it’s possible they genuinely don’t realise it’s a problem. On the other hand, they might make excuses for themselves, or counter-accuse the colleague. 

Either way, you’ve begun to set the tone and put them on notice that their conduct is unacceptable, and you’d like things to change - for the better.  This type of conversation can be disarming for an employee – but can go direct to the heart of the matter. If you’ve handled it well, the calm and rational conversation you’ve just had will be a far better outcome than what may have happened if you’d let things simmer. 



When an employee continues to be problematic or destructive, the problem can lie beyond what’s happening at work. According to Mindframe statistics, 1 in every 5 Australians annually will experience a mental health problem. So where a behaviour seems emotionally charged or disproportionate to the problem at hand, it’s possible there’s a more deep-seated psychological issue.

Keep your cool. Get your thoughts together – be logical, rational and empathetic. Then talk to the employee. Calmly. It may be enough to de-escalate things.  Giving your employee the chance to be honest about what’s really going on may bring clarity to the situation, and a new level of awareness for them. What they say should put you on the path for managing the situation. 



When you've tried everything to improve a difficult relationship but the employee still seems hell bent on making your workplace miserable, it's time to consider your options.

You can always try and ride it out. Forge ahead! But be candid with your employee about how their behaviour impacts productivity and workplace morale.  They need to hear it! 

No matter how challenging you find their personality, this alone is not grounds for terminating employment, and may lead to all sorts of allegations - including unfair dismissal. 

However, doing nothing - and allowing their behaviour to continue - sends a clear message to everyone else that their behaviour is condoned.  This can be a costly mistake - in employee engagement, staff retention and productivity.  Not to mention your duty of care under the work health and safety legislation.

The sad reality is that sometimes you have to make the best of a bad situation – and put up with them. Stay within the guidelines of the law, and set the tone for your employees – all of them. Be clear and direct about what’s acceptable workplace etiquette. Be especially direct with those who need to hear it. Avoid being re-active. Do what’s right for your business - and all of your employees!



Disclaimer: This post is intended to provide general information and does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Formal advice should be sought in particular matters to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.

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