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Job Interview: ‘How Do You Manage A Difficult Employee?’

How did you manage a difficult employee

When you’re applying for a management or a supervisory position, there’s a large chance that the interviewer will ask you about how you manage a difficult employee. Chances are that you, as a supervisor, have dealt with at least some difficult employees. Difficult employees lower the morale of a team and, in turn, can have an impact on team productivity. This is one of the reasons why interviewers ask you about how you manage difficult employees. It’s also one of the most frequently asked job interview questions.


Make sure that when you’re preparing for your supervisory or management position job interview, you spend some time on developing an answer to the question that regards handling difficult employees.

Your answer to this question should demonstrate that you’re able to deal with different personalities and manage different types of people. As you can imagine, it’s easy to prove that you’re able to manage employees who are self-motivated and successful within the company.

However, managers who can bring out the best in struggling team members and increase their productivity levels are highly valued and extremely appreciated. It’s therefore also important that you are able to demonstrate that you can do this by using clear work examples of times you did.

Other ways in which the interviewer can ask you how you manage a difficult employee:

In this blog, we discuss why the interviewer is asking you about what areas need improvement. Also, we tell you what you should focus on when answering this question. Furthermore, read more about frequently asked job interview questions here and check our job interview preparation checklist.

Why The Interviewer Asks How You Manage A Difficult Employee

First and foremost, the interviewer is trying to found out how you manage employees and how you get along with different types of personalities. To succeed as a manager, you should be able to deal with complex situations and conflicts professionally. Also, this question gives the interviewer insights into what you define as problematic behavior in the workplace. This is important to know because the interviewer wants to know if you fit into the company culture.

When you analyze the question ‘How did you manage a difficult employee?‘ You might think the question is about the difficult person in the situation. Guess what? It’s not. It is about you as a manager or supervisor and how you approach situations in the workplace. Also, it’s important that you can demonstrate tolerance, listening skills, and a level of understanding that enables you to work successfully with everybody in your team, regardless of how you feel personally about them.

The interviewer is looking for a couple of things in your answer:

  1. Adaptability

Are you able to deal with difficult situations directly as soon as they occur? Adaptability is an important skill that managers need to possess to deal with different personalities in the workplace.

Learn more about adaptability interview questions and how to answer them.

  1. Professional attitude

Do you demonstrate the ability to separate personal feelings from the behaviors? In other words, did your actions focus on the specific behavior of the employee?

  1. Thought-out actions

Did you investigate the issue thoroughly before making a decision? Did you listen to the story of the employee in question? Active listening skills are essential for managers. You must demonstrate that you take well-thought-out actions and that you consider all aspects before making a decision.

  1. Communication skills

How did you communicate with the employee? What kind of feedback did you give on his behavior, and was this clear to this specific person?

Learn more about communication interview questions and how to answer them.

  1. Protocol adherence

Did you document the situation according to the company’s HR protocol, discussed it with the HR department, and include this in the employee’s record?

How To Answer Interview Questions About How You Manage A Difficult Employee

Dealing with difficult employees is always challenging and never an easy task. Even though somebody might be highly educated, this does not mean that someone is reasonable and rational all the time. Also, as a manager, you still have to be able to tackle difficult situations and actually manage employees who might affect the team’s morale, productivity, efficiency, and outlook.

Depending on the situation with the employee, you can include specific details in your answer. However, every situation with a difficult or problem employee is different. That’s why you should think about a specific situation that positively emphasizes your management style.

Also, mentioning how your management style helped improve an employee’s performance is smart to mention. This way, you ‘quantify’ the results of your actions, which gives your answer more weight.

Providing an example that includes the termination of the contract of a difficult employee does not necessarily show your abilities as a manager. However, if you decide to go with such an example, ensure that you describe the full process and how you interacted with the human resources department on determining the best way to move forward in that particular situation.

When thinking about your answer, make sure that you use the STAR interview technique to structure how you handled the situation. STAR is an acronym that stands for a situation (S), your task (T) in that situation, the actions (A) you took, and what results (R) you got based on your actions. Below, the STAR technique is described in more detail.

Important Things To Mention In Answers About How You Manage Difficult Employees

There are a couple of things that could help you convey the right message to your interviewer. It’s important that you come across as a calm professional who’s able to look at challenging situations objectively and adapt if needed.

It’s essential to demonstrate that you can address specific issues with employees the right way. This means that you need to explain to the interviewer that you understand that ignoring a problem is never a good solution in the workplace.

Next, once you identified the specific problem, make sure you describe how you investigated the situation. In other words, this gets the message across to the interviewer that you did not make a decision based on hearsay or gossip.

Once this is clear, explain how you communicated with the employee and how you gave feedback on how his or her behavior could impact others, by providing specific examples.

A positive element to include is if you, for example, gave the employee the opportunity to coach him or her to display more appropriate behavior in the workplace in the future.

Finish your answer by explaining how you documented the situation in the record of the employee, and if you consulted about the situation with the human resources department.

Additional things you could include in your answer, if applicable:

  1. That you have reviewed the company’s policies and procedures if you were not sure about what to do.
  2. How you monitored the progress of the particular employee and followed up on their progress over time.
  3. That you understand when contract termination may be appropriate and how you followed through and handled the situation within the law.

What To Focus On When Answering Questions About How You Manage A Difficult Employee

To sum up, all the information mentioned in this blog, we can deduce the following steps to focus on when answering questions about managing difficult employees.

  1. Never say you have no experience with handling difficult employees

Just answer the question you’re being asked. It’s unlikely that you will impress the interviewer by stating that you never worked with a problem employee. Also, giving an answer about how a person you worked with brought out the worst in you is not the way to go.

Always avoid including negativity in your answers. Negativity or claiming you have never deal with difficult employees could lead to giving the interviewer the impression that you did not prepare your interview thoroughly. Focus on being honest about the situation. Even though some employees are difficult to work with, this does not mean that such situations can’t be solved.

  1. Use examples that emphasize your excellent management skills

It’s a good idea to give some thought to the examples that you decided to use, should this question come up during your job interview. No matter the situation you decide to go for, make sure that it shows that you have excellent management skills in handling the situation and that you kept your cool throughout.

  1. Focus on yourself

The interviewer is interested in you, and only in you and your actions in particular situations. Therefore focus on yourself and clearly explain how you handled the situation that you decided to use in your answers. Again, the answer should be about you and what you did, not about the employee.

To most efficient way to structure your answer is by using the STAR interview technique. This technique will help you provide the interviewer with a concise and to the point answer.

Your goal is to explain to the interviewer how you handled the situation. The interviewer is aware of the fact that employees can be difficult to deal with within the workplace. Therefore, it’s up to you to show that you are able to manage them professionally and get the best results out of them as possible. This means that you should provide enough information to the interviewer to substantiate this.

After describing the situation, always follow up with how it got resolved. This way, you give the interviewer actual answers about your management skills instead of raising more questions.

Sample Answers To Discuss How You Manage A Difficult Employee

Below we discuss a couple of example answers to questions about managing difficult employees. However, these are just general examples. Ensure that you tailor your answers to your specific situation and the position you’re applying for.

Sample answer 1 – ‘How do you manage a difficult employee?’

‘Two years ago, I managed a team of 5 consultants, and I had one team member who was constantly late when it came to completing tasks. These tasks were set out and discussed during the weekly planning to make sure all team members had the same workload.

With him being late, the whole team started to run behind on the planning. I had a one-on-one with him and, next to giving him a warning, explained the situation and what it meant for the team. We discussed a deadline for him to improve his contribution to the team effort.

After the first two weeks that followed, I saw no improvement, so I talked to him again and told him that I would include this in his employee record and report it to the HR department. We discussed a final deadline to improve himself, and I offered to coach him during the process. Luckily for the team and me, he took it seriously.

Within a week, there was a real improvement in his output and quality of work, and furthermore, everything was delivered ahead of the project the deadline. Besides his productivity and quality going up, the friction within the team was gone, and all issues were solved.’

Why this is a strong answer:

This answer shows that you are able to pinpoint the specific behavior of employees that need to be improved. It also shows that you are willing to help them improve their professional behaviors to improve team performance in general.

Sample answer 2 – ‘How do you manage a difficult employee?’

‘In my previous job as a manager of the customer service department, I had a team member who was struggling with handling customer service in a professional manner. His feedback scores were generally lower than the averages of other team members. The main reason for this was that clients pointed out his inability to address their concerns empathetically. Of course, for us as a company, this meant that our reputation was impacted by his actions.

I spoke to him in private and addressed the poor evaluations, and we went over his customer ratings together. By highlighting the specific negative feedback from clients, he understood what he needed to work on. He asked me if he could get in-house training to improve his client engagement skills.

After he finished his training, I offered to coach him and go over his client conversations together. We had a sit-down and made a plan together to improve his performance, his customer evaluation scores improved soon after. He’s currently scoring above average regularly and has much more fun in his work.’

Why this is a strong answer:

This answer shows that you, as a manager, are able to turn around a situation in which an employee with potential is underperforming. You’re highlighting that you took specific steps to improve his performance without giving up on him.

Job Interview Topics – Common Job Interview Questions & Answers

Below you can find a list of common job interview topics. Each link will direct you to an article regarding the specific topics that discuss commonly asked interview questions. Furthermore, each article discusses why the interviewer asks these questions and how you answer them!

  1. Accomplishments
  2. Adaptability
  3. Admission
  4. Behavioral
  5. Career Change
  6. Career Goals
  7. Communication
  8. Competency
  9. Conflict Resolution
  10. Creative Thinking
  11. Cultural Fit
  12. Customer Service
  13. Direct
  14. Experience
  15. Government
  16. Graduate
  17. Growth Potential
  18. Honesty & Integrity
  19. Illegal
  20. Inappropriate
  21. Job Satisfaction
  22. Leadership
  23. Management
  24. Entry-Level & No experience
  25. Performance-Based
  26. Personal
  27. Prioritization & Time Management
  28. Problem-solving
  29. Salary
  30. Situational & Scenario-based
  31. Stress Management
  32. Teamwork
  33. Telephone Interview
  34. Tough
  35. Uncomfortable
  36. Work Ethic

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