The Whiner, Know-It-All and Naysayer Can Make the Workplace a Drag

HR experts define types of difficult employees, discuss how to handle them

By Susan Milligan Jul 1, 2013
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Nobody likes the Whiner, the person at the office who complains about everything and hurts workplace morale. Then there’s the Know-It-All, the annoying co-worker who weighs in on seemingly everything with an expert opinion. Just as maddening is the Super-Agreeable employee, the one who says yes to everything but doesn’t always follow through.

Most HR managers would consider these people “difficult” employees, the type who don’t deserve to be let go but who, nonetheless, create a toxic or negative environment that can affect their colleagues’ productivity. They present a delicate challenge for HR managers, who need to foster a happy and efficient workplace while accepting that many people just have quirky personalities.

The reasons people can be difficult at work vary, said Elissa Tucker, human capital management research program manager at American Productivity & Quality Center, a member-based Houstonnonprofit that does management research. Some workers may be going through life-changing events, such as a divorce or company merger, while others may be difficult no matter what their circumstances, she said. But HR managers must deal with difficult workers before things get out of hand, Tucker emphasized. “One difficult employee can have such a multiplier effect. It affects everyone’s performance, everyone’s morale.”

HR advisor and consultant Steve Roesler outlined 10 categories of difficult employees in a June 2013 webinar for Progressive Business Executive Education, a Malvern, Pa.-basedmanagement training company:

The Hostile worker is verbally and sometimes physically aggressive with co-workers and can actually be dangerous.

The Whiner “can just make life seem like you’re running fingernails over a chalkboard,” Roesler said.

The Negativist, or perpetual naysayer, “brings down the group, [and] sooner or later, they can affect retention.”

The Sniper is constantly nit-picking colleagues, though he or she may not realize it.

The Impatient employee upsets the rhythm of the office and constantly demands to be placated.

The Know-It-All is aggravating even though he or she may be knowledgeable.

The Arrogant worker, unlike the Know-It-All, acts like he or she knows everything but really doesn’t. “Not unlike in high school, if someone is continually arrogant, you may find that in your absence, the ‘team’ has taken care of the issue, if it got to the point where everybody is fed up with it,’’ and dressed down the offending person without involving HR,Roesler told the online participants.

The Indecisive employee holds things up and slows productivity.

The Silent type who refuses to talk or contribute is actually displaying “not a defensive but an offensive posture,” he said.

Super-Agreeable people are troublesome because when they say yes, they don’t always mean it, Roesler told the group. “Think of the people in your life you trust the most—they are the people who say no to you. You know where their boundaries are. You know where their line in the sand is.”

So what’s an HR manager to do? It’s important to set consistent and clear expectations about workplace behavior from the start, experts said. When a problem arises, deal with it quickly and completely, said executive coach Chris Ruisi, author of Step Up and Play Big: Unlock Your Potential to be Exceptional in 8 Simple Steps (Advantage, 2012). “When you don’t deal with a situation like a complaining employee, you’re allowing it to fester and get worse,” he said. He suggested a heart-to-heart initiated by an HR manager or with what Ruisi called an “unofficial leader” in the office—a respected co-worker who might be able to talk to the troublesome employee on a less threatening peer-to-peer level.

HR managers need to “play the role of detective” when investigating the concerns of aggrieved employees, separating opinion from actual behavior, said HR expert Kerry Patterson, co-author of Crucial Conversations (McGraw-Hill, 2011). Then they can handle the matter directly with the offending worker or help the complaining co-workers handle it on their own. In no circumstance should employees gang up on a difficult colleague, he warned. “If they’re difficult, you don’t want to come into the room with five people.”

If an employee simply can’t get along with others, he or she should be given the choice of going home—without pay for that day, said Michelle Benjamin, CEO of Bronx, N.Y.-based workforce solutions company Benjamin Enterprises, noting that most people would not choose to take an unpaid day off.

And finally, remember that so-called difficult employees might actually be the most creative ones in the bunch, added Rick Gibbs, a performance specialist at human resources provider Insperity in Houston.

“Maybe ‘difficult’ is something that might be good,’’ he said. “One person’s nonconformity is another person’s innovation.” In a workplace, there is naturally “an interplay between people, and probably that interplay is good.”

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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