Recreative Resources


Dealing with Difficult or Challenging Employees

By Kim Grandal, ACC/EDU, ACM

One thing Recreation and Activity Directors don't expect when they enter the realm of management is having to deal with the varying personalities and behaviors of employees. It came as a big surprise to me decades ago as a young manager. Over the years, I have learned how to better deal with people and started seeing through their eyes. Perspective is a very important thing. Keep that in mind.

Many managers and supervisors would rather not deal with these difficult circumstances. Why is that?

Some common reasons may include:


  • Don't like conflict - seriously, who really likes to engage in conflict?
  • Don’t want to upset the apple cart- sweet pea, if there is conflict then the apple cart is already upset.
  • Skilled employees - there's always that one employee who has been there for a long time or has a lot of skills, and managers often don't want to confront them for fear of losing the skilled employee.
  • Failed attempts - confronting issues and people takes confidence, know-how and practice.
  • Procrastination - trust me when I say the more you procrastinate, the worse it's going to get.
  • Don’t know how -just because you are an amazing Recreation Therapist or Activity Assistant doesn't mean you are automatically a super - duper leader and manager, so it's important to be open to learning or improving this valuable skill.
  • Lack of support - if your immediate supervisor, director or administrator isn't supportive of you, then that is a problem in of itself.

Please keep in mind that as a manager, director or supervisor, you MUST deal with difficult employees, people, and circumstances. It comes with the job. Some of the red flags that indicate you likely need to take the bull by the horns, includes an employee who: has attendance issues, leaves early or come in late, takes long breaks and lunch, uses the phone too much, complains a lot, isn't a team player, exhibits poor quality or productivity, doesn't play well with others, and so on. Do you have any of these behaviors in your department? Sounds, familiar, doesn't it?

Well, here’s a thought…

What if there are no difficult people…just difficult situations?

Oh Kim, you didn't just go there. Yes, I did.

Think about this for a moment. I'm sure some people think that YOU are difficult too. Admit it. I'm sure there is something about you that someone else isn't fond of. I can name at least 10 things about myself that annoy others, but so be it. I embrace my idiosyncrasies and you should embrace yours as well. With that being said, what makes a great manager is someone who can be a leader as well. In order to be that leader, you need to understand behavior. You don't need to be a psychologist to understand basic human behavior. You just need to be observant.

Here are some things you can do.

1) Identify Problems - what is the problem? You can identify problems through observations, audits, performance evaluations, conversations, complaints, and so on.

2) Investigate and Evaluate - As the manager YOU should collect the data, obtain examples, record occurrences, etc. Find the cause for the behavior. Does the employee not like the job? Would the employee prefer a different job? Are there any personal issues? Is there a health issue? Put on your Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys' hat and get the scoop.

3) Intervene A.S.A.P - Don’t ignore the problem, it could get worse! Please be sure to check with the Human Resources Department to find out what the policies are for dealing with employees or other people in the work environment. It's crucial to follow all protocols and maintain written records of all behaviors, interventions, training, etc.

Here's a little exercise for you. Think about an employee or a person outside of work, that you find to be challenging or difficult and answer these questions.


  • Why do you find this person difficult? What are their behaviors?
  • Is this something that has to be addressed immediately or can you wait a little while?
  • What motivates this person to be difficult? Example: an employee who wanted a promotion and didn't get it so now they are bitter. Or an employee that wanted a certain day off and was denied. Or do you think it's something related to their personal life? If so, you may want to reach out to Human Resources for additional guidance and support.
  • Have you confronted this person before?
  • What are your options? Options may include: 1) Ignore 2) Coach the employee or person 3) Mentor and 4) Discipline.


So, what will you do the next time you encounter a difficult or challenging employee? Remember, it's not necessarily the person that it difficult but rather a difficult situation that is affecting their work and ultimately the quality of life of the residents. How will YOU handle the situation?

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