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Mentoring Difficult Employees

May 25, 2019

Almost every workplace has them. Difficult employees. These are those individuals who have a negative impact on the workplace. They can be those who are constantly late, who complain about everything, are inconsiderate, demanding or both. Regardless of their specific behaviours, difficult employees can create unique challenges for the workplace.

Yet, these individuals can also be some of the most talented in the company.

Workplace challenges of a difficult employee

Research by Gallup found that 50 percent of employees were unengaged in their jobs and a further 17 percent were actively disengaged, which means they are looking for a way out.

With over half of employees in the U.S. unengaged with their jobs and their company, having a difficult employee on staff can cause extra tension and complication. If your disengaged employees continue in the toxic atmosphere that has negatively impacted by a difficult co-worker, they may decide to leave the company in hopes of finding a more agreeable workplace.

There is good news. One study found that 53 percent of Human Resources personnel say that employee engagement improves after quality onboarding practices were implemented.

What to do about a difficult employee

Experts will note that the behaviour of difficult employees is likely a symptom of something more going on in their lives. It is important to investigate and find out what that is before you can determine if mentorship is the right avenue. Once you narrow down if it is a personal problem or a work-related issue, you are in a better position to design a workplace mentorship experience that is ideal for that particular individual.

Mentorship and difficult employees

Depending on the type of personality of the employee, mentoring could be the best answer. This re-engagement strategy could result in better performance, more positive impact in the workplace and more loyalty on behalf of the employee.

According to the Globe and Mail newspaper, there are several different employee types that require a unique approach such as workplace mentoring. These include:

  1. Superstar: this is your talented employee who knows their worth. They often take advantage of their value to the company by challenging authority and showing off in front of co-workers.
  2. Perfectionist: this employee strives to perfect everything they do, but they lack a team player attitude. Often, they are resented by co-workers.
  3. Spicer and dicer: employees with this attitude only take on tasks or assignments that fit within the narrow description of their job title.
  4. Spoiled: just like a child, this employee often finds it hard to hold their temper. They regularly get angry with co-workers and refuse to accept any criticism no matter how constructive.
  5. Smart but shy: that employee who appeared ideal on paper but seems to lack gumption in the workplace.

While a workplace mentorship can help each of these types of employees to overcome their personal hurdles, each situation needs to be assessed on a case by case basis.

One consideration is the best mentor for your difficult employee, which is something that can be decided based on their personality. For example, the smart but shy employee who does not take initiative or put forward ideas can benefit from a mentor that is encouraging. Yet, an encouraging mentor might not be the right fit for the superstar.

It is important to note that difficult employees may also be difficult mentees. Some may have trust issues with the mentor while others need a while to warm up to the idea yet other employees may have doubts about whether or not the mentorship is worth it. Keep communication open but be clear and direct about the employees need for a mentoring experience.

Tips for effective mentoring with difficult employees

Unlike other mentees, a difficult employee may need more nurturing, encouragement and follow up to ensure they get the most out of the mentorship. Here are some ways that mentoring program managers or leadership can help:

Conduct regular check-ins: Keep track of mentoring meeting schedules and check in to see if they are happening. It is also a good idea to follow up with the mentee to find out how they are coming along with the mentoring relationship.

Set reasonable goals: When defining mentoring goals, try to pick ones that are reasonable for the mentee to achieve but also challenging enough to keep the employee engaged in the process. They should also be relevant to the mentee’s hopes for their future.

Change your mentor: If things are not working out with the first mentor that you assigned the employee, don’t hesitate to find a better match. Sometimes it just takes time to get the right pairing, yet it is an essential part of the success for any workplace mentoring program. Mentoring software can help in this step by automating the pairing process. Using parameters defined by your workplace mentoring manager, programs like Together is a better choice than a hit and miss approach.


Managing difficult employees presents a unique challenge and each situation is unique. It becomes a bigger problem if these staff members are disruptively disengaged, which can agitate other employees and cause a negative environment in the workplace.

Re-engaging these difficult staff members through a workplace mentorship may prove to be a pivotal turning point. Employees who have a good mentoring experience can have a positive impact on the workplace. In effect, mentoring difficult employees could not only improve their attitude in the office but can also be a source of support and encouragement for other employees.

Download our Full Report on Mentoring

We interviewed and surveyed employees from 50+ leading North American Companies including McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, IBM, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Capital One, Norton Rose Fulbright, Mackenzie Investments. Get the results below.

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