Question forms part of
Other interview questions that are similar
Tell me about a time you had to fire someone for gross negligence?
Who was the most challenging person you ever needed to manage?
Have you ever needed to reprimand a team member for poor performance?
What the interviewer is looking for by asking this question
Leadership and people management isn’t always fun and games. Even if you have a great team working with you who get the job done quickly and professionally, you are always going to get a difficult employee come through every now and then. Previously good employees can become difficult due to outside factors.
If you are lucky you might not see many in your career, but you will definitely see some if you spend any length of time in management.
How you will deal with these difficult employees is what the interview wants to know when they ask this question.
The best way of knowing someone’s future behaviour is by studying their past behaviour.
The interviewer wants you to hear from you how you manage difficult employees. Are you quick to fire employees? Are you a pushover? Do you avoid confrontation or tackle it straight on? Do you try to hand off the issue to others?
These are all the things that the interviewer will be looking for when you answer this question.
The best approach to answering this question
This question is a “Have you ever had to” style question. For these questions the best way to answer is to:
– Always say YES
– Reframe the question into a ‘Tell me about a time’ question
All “Have you ever had to” questions should be answered positively. The interviewer wants to know if you have experience in what they are asking. They wouldn’t be asking the question if they didn’t want someone with that experience, so make sure you are prepared to answer Yes when this question pops up.
Once you have answered Yes, pivot the question into “Tell me about a time you had to manage a difficult employee”. For these style of questions you should always use the B-STAR technique. Let’s see how it can be applied to this question:
B – Belief – Talk about how your beliefs when it comes to people management. The best answers will talk about how you always strive to get the best out of the people who report into you and that you try to resolve any issues quickly when they arise. If someone is being difficult you take steps to understand the issue and quickly take steps to remove the underlying cause.
S – Situation – Set the scene for the interviewer. What was your role and what was the employees role? Talk about how the employee was being difficult. The best answers will have a clear good guy and a clear bad guy (obviously you will want to be the good guy). You don’t have a long time to set the scene so make the conflict really straight forward and easy to understand.
T – Task – What did you need to do? Talk about how it was your responsibility to resolve the issue with the employee in order for work to be completed unencumbered by drama.
A – Activity – What did you actually do? Briefly run through the steps you took. The best answers will talk about how you met with the employee to better understand the nature of the issue, how you took steps to resolve their issue and how you communicated this to both your employees and your management team.
R – Results – How did it all work out in the end? The best answers will revert back to how the issue had been resolved and team productivity was better as a result.
It would be best if your example had you providing support to the difficult employee and having them turn around their performance under your tutelage. However do not be afraid to talk about an example where you needed to let someone go due to either consistent poor performance or a bad attitude/work ethic. Just ensure you discuss how you tried to fix the issue first and only fired them as it was the only option.
How NOT to answer this question
Do not answer “No”. The interviewer is asking this question because they are looking for someone who has this experience (they wouldn’t ask the question if it wasn’t relevant to the position), answering “No” here is telling the interviewer that you do not have the experience necessary to lead this team.]
Do not give an example where someone else plays a starring role. For example say if you were in charge of a number of managers and one of these managers had an issue with a team member which you provided guidance on. This is not a good example because the manager will be the one doing the action not you. All you did was give advice.
Do not come across as a pushover. Be understanding in your response to the employee but be firm that continued poor performance on their part will not be acceptable.
Do not come across overly strict. The opposite of above really. Don’t talk about how you will fire employees who don’t perform. It is expensive for firms to hire and train employees so the first option should always be to get the existing employee back on track and performing.
Have You Ever Had To Manage A Difficult Employee? – Example answer
“Yes on a number of occasions. My style of management is such that I believe that if you ensure your employees have all of the required training and all the necessary resources at their disposal that you can take a step back and they will flourish on their own. I do not believe in overly micromanaging my team. I have an open door policy and I have regular catchups with my team members and I trust that they will get the job done.
By and large this works pretty well in my current role. However you do sometimes get the occasional team member who requires more supervision than others.
One such person was new to my team and soon after their training and introductory period finished their productivity dropped week by week. At the start the colleague seemed to be at the same level as some of the more experienced members of the team but over time his output dropped until he was comfortably the worst performer all around.
I spent the next week or so monitoring this colleague more closely to understand where any issues were arising. I noticed that he was spending large amounts of time being unproductive and not completing tasks.
I raised this with him during our weekly one-on-one and he admitted how he didn’t feel much motivation to complete more work and found it difficult stay focused when there seemed to just be more work to come.
I took a few actions on the back of this meeting, all of which I cleared with my management team ahead of time.
I put the colleague on an action plan that monitored his output on a daily and weekly basis. This would be reviewed by myself along with the colleague and with our director. It was stressed to the colleague that if there were no changes after a month that we would be terminating his position with the company.
Also as a show of transparency and in an attempt at motivation by target setting we started releasing productivity reports for the whole team so they know how each team member is performing.
The action plan proved to be the motivator that was required for the ‘difficult employee’ as soon after we started the action plans his output was nearing the top of the team charts. The team productivity reports also became a big success and saw improvements across the whole team. Senior management were pleased and have taken the action to talk about a bonus structure to go along with the performance reports which is still in the pipeline.”
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