HR Management & Compliance

What to Do with Disruptive Employees

Nearly every workplace will have to deal with disruptive, difficult, and frustrating employees. Unfortunately, these types of employees can cause a lot of harm—even if they’re not actively causing injuries (though this is also possible).

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An employee may be considered disruptive in any number of ways, such as:

  • Constant negativity, gossiping, and spreading complaints and frustration to others. While employee complaints should, of course, be addressed, a disruptive employee will go beyond simply voicing concerns—he or she will become a source of negativity that spreads to others.
  • Acting disrespectfully or inappropriately toward others in any way. This includes (but is not limited to) harassment, bullying, being physical with others, threatening others, touching other employees in a nonprofessional manner, acting aggressively or menacingly, etc.
  • Roughhousing or playing around in a way that is offensive or unsafe.
  • Any other behavior that causes undue frustration, disruption, and problems.

Some disruptive behaviors like negativity are not actually problematic when taken individually. Employees have the right to complain about things in the work environment—and should, when there are issues that need to be addressed. But most disruptive behavior goes beyond that.

When employees are disruptive, here are some of the problems:

  • Employee morale may be impacted. When employees are being disruptive and are not disciplined for their actions, other employees get frustrated. It may seem to be pointless to try to speak out to change things when HR and other managers won’t take action.
  • Turnover could increase. When employees get frustrated with their working environment, they may be prompted to start looking for a new job. Especially in this environment of low unemployment levels, employees may feel confident they can find a better work atmosphere elsewhere.
  • Bad attitudes can be contagious. When an employee is being disruptive and negative, it may lead some other employees to latch on to some of that employee’s sentiments—spreading the negativity and problems.
  • Productivity could be affected. Even if affected employees don’t leave, they may be less productive because they have to deal with the disruptive employee frequently. They’re more likely to be stressed out or have to take days off of work.
  • Accidents and mistakes may occur. Distracted employees (who are dealing with these issues from the problem employee) may be more likely to make mistakes.

Disruptive employees are notoriously difficult to manage. Other employees may be reluctant to bring up problems for fear of reprisal or retaliation. Or, they may not do so because they are not convinced anything will be done about it. Managers may be wary of confronting the individual because they dislike confrontation or because they fear losing an otherwise high performer. Or, the manager might be the problem and the employee doesn’t know where to turn.

When an employee moves beyond simple complaining or causing minor frustrations and becomes truly disruptive, employers need to find a way to actively manage the disruption before it causes additional problems. HR teams need to be on the lookout both for patterns of complaints and for problems that employees may be reluctant to point out. Getting in front of these issues when possible can help to minimize the impact. Employee discipline, up to and including termination, if warranted, may be necessary to diffuse the situation.

Remember, many disruptive situations have more going on that meets the eye. Be sure to investigate and take complaints seriously—even complaints brought forth by the person who is being disruptive. HR can also be proactive by providing relevant training, such as training on managing difficult employees, civility training, and training on improving teamwork. HR can also ensure that policies like antiharassment, antibullying, and employee discipline are kept up to date. HR can also be proactive by conducting employee engagement surveys to try to discover problems before they significantly impact morale.


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