Difficult Employees

As leaders we have all dealt with difficult employees that have been low performers. But, what do we do with a difficult employee who is destructive, a bully, or worse yet, sabotaging the performance of other employees or even the organization?

Bullies and tyrants are not just limited to school playgrounds; they are found in the corporate board room, and even among our peers and direct reports. Understanding the impact of followers that are destructive or bullies will be explored in this article.


Before we can look at destructive behaviors and their impact, it is helpful to have an accurate definition of destructive behavior. Tepper (2000) defined abusive work behaviors as hostile and/or non-verbal behaviors that are acted out. Usually these behaviors exclude physical contact.

Destructive behavior is a systematic and repeated behavior by an individual that violates the legitimate interest of the organization by undermining and/or sabotaging the organization’s goals, tasks, resources, and effectiveness and or motivation, well being or job satisfaction (Einersen, Aaland & Skogstad, 2007).


Barrow (2010) defined workplace bullying as “Repetitive, abusive behavior that devalues and harms other people on the job. Workplace bullying is not physically violent but relies on the formidable weapons of hostile actions and words” (p.77).

When employees are exposed to bullies or destructive co-workers in the workplace, their work is impacted. Motivation is limited and productivity falters.

In addition, employee health issues increase. Physical and emotional symptoms of bullying include headaches, GI issues, depression, isolation, and in some cases suicide (Barrow, 2010). Furthermore, destructive behaviors affect personal and job satisfaction including turnover intentions, health problems, psychological distress, and citizenship within the organization.

One Bad Apple

As leaders we are all busy with strategic plans, operational strategies, and the work of inspiring and motivating our employees. However, when leaders have destructive employees in the workplace, it makes our jobs 10 times harder to perform. What is surprising is that one bad apple really can spoil and destroy a highly functioning unit within a very short period of time; often within a matter of just a few weeks.

Destructive, bullying, and toxic employees create an environment that is full of strife, angst, and destruction. It wreaks havoc on job satisfaction and creates an environment where our high performing employees are sitting at their desks during lunch time looking at job postings.


As much as we wish it to be the case, it will not be the destructive bully leaving our organization; it is our hard working, high performers that are leaving to remove themselves from the abuse that surrounds them.

Look for Symptoms

So what can leaders do to address these types of behaviors in the workplace? For many leaders they know that it is happening but, they are not equipped to handle the bullies. Many leaders close their eyes to what happens, hoping that the problem will go away or take care of itself.

In some cases organizational cultures will morph to accommodate destructive or bullying behaviors, creating a toxic environment for all (Roter, 2011). As leaders, we hope that the problem will resolve itself or go away.

Yet that is not the case. Rarely do these behaviors stop and, in many cases, they escalate. Others see these behaviors occurring and sometimes jump on the bandwagon in hopes of becoming friends with the bully and hoping to divert their attention to someone else.

As a leader, it is important to keep your ear to the ground and look for the signs that something isn’t right:

  • Is there increased absenteeism in a single department?
  • Is there loss of productivity or a high turnover rate in a department?
  • If employee satisfaction surveys are conducted, what are those surveys telling you?

Employee satisfaction surveys can tell leaders crucial information about what is going on in the organization. Are you connected to the grapevine and hearing what is going on within the organization? Most importantly, are you and other leaders equipped to handle these types of behaviors? Partnering with your Human Resource professionals will help to identify and address these behaviors in the workplace.

Workplace bullying and destructive behaviors are rampant in today’s workplace. It can be displayed as subtle bullying behaviors or aggressive, destructive and dangerous behaviors which can sabotage your organization. As a result, your organization may be faced with increased turnover of high performers, increased absenteeism, and decreased productivity.


As a leader you cannot afford to face these types of workplace issues. Your focus should be on the strategy of the organization. In order to maximize organizational strategy, leaders need to also address bullying and destructive behaviors. Organizations should establish policies which address destructive and bullying behaviors.

Having a strong infrastructure which addresses destructive behaviors is a critical component of leadership and organizational strategy.  A strong and aggressive infrastructure will help to address bullying and destructive behaviors.

How Do You Recognize Difficult Employees?

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Dr. Annette Roter
Annette is an experienced leadership and organization development professional. Her research focus is on toxic and destructive behaviors within organizations. Her email is [email protected].