Fast Track: Step into my office, please...

Lateness, laziness, absenteeism, aggression... How should young managers deal with difficult employees?

Despite her trepidation, Joanna's first attempt to sack an employee seemed to go smoothly. As a young manager of 20 staff, she had been asked by her boss to dismiss an awkward and lazy worker who'd exhausted the company's good will. Her boss felt the experience would give Joanna - a Cambridge graduate recently promoted within the small tour operator - the chance to assert authority. "She seemed to take it well, and I left for lunch feeling hugely relieved," explains Joanna.

But upon her return, ashen-faced staff greeted her with the news that the woman had taken an overdose. She was released from hospital only to head back to work to plead for her job back. "I spent three hours talking to her," says Joanna. "It was traumatic because she was threatening to kill herself again." In fact, Joanna was left wondering why management had left her in total charge of such a crisis.

In truth, of course, junior managers are unlikely to be left as much in the lurch as Joanna. But inevitably, young high-flying managers will encounter employees who are resentful, spiteful or downright difficult. Reveal weakness and people will exploit it, says Debra Allcock, head of campaigning at the Industrial Society. And at work, she adds, there's nowhere to hide. "It's not like university. If you don't like someone, you can't just ignore it. You have to work with them and face the problem."

In a climate where discrimination cases are rife, this is a particularly common concern for inexperienced graduate recruits. "They can get awfully emotional and blame themselves," warns Ms Allcock. "Or they take sides, and that can be lethal." She speaks from experience - her early career reads like a "how not to do it" management manual. Promoted to lead a team she once worked among, she admits she drove them to distraction with her naturally bossy and demanding manner. The more she harangued them, the less they performed. Eventually they ganged up and protested, which led to an unseemly slagging match. "I was powerless. Discipline had been my only answer and it didn't work." She left work in tears and returned to eat humble pie, eventually rebuilding a relationship with apologies, honesty and a plea for help.

Throwing your weight around is a commonly abused ploy by inexperienced managers, agrees the occupational psychologist Gary Cooper - and one of the worst. "Don't ever try to use your position of authority in a conflict situation," he advises. Managers are equally likely to swing too far the other way, however, ignoring problems or trying to combat them by being "over nice". "I hate to say it, but it's a trap women tend to fall into," says Ms Allcock. "We've been brought up to avoid conflict and we want to be popular. It's much harder to be tough."

Most prevalent is failing to confront obvious problems such as lateness, absenteeism and lack of motivation. The result? The pressure piles up on already overstretched managers to the extent that they virtually end up doing an extra job. With the benefit of hindsight, Emma - a graduate recruit with a leading firm of accountants and self-confessed "Mother Teresa"-style manager - would certainly have been tougher on a slack member of her team. His constant absence in the office (she later learnt he had been sleeping in the loos) led her to exhaust herself completing his tasks while trying to coax him back to the desk.

"I tried to reason and plead with him. I even brought in chocolates and cakes. I went over the top trying to motivate him." But she had neither the time nor the experience to tackle the root cause of his problem - his disaffection with accountancy. "I should have asked advice and been more direct with him. I was just being too nice, trying to protect him."

If you sense a problem, tackle it instantly with a one-to-one interview, advises Ms Allcock. "Concentrate on facts, take the personal out of it." Remember there is no clear right or wrong, just different opinions of an event. Also, avoid harping on about what should have been done - "There's nothing more irritating." A management cliche perhaps, but listening without prejudice to the employee's version of events is key. Inevitably, you'll discover the cause of the problem, be it hassles at home, depression, or difficulties with children.

"You've got to find a way of engaging them in the process, so you're not just laying down the law," adds Professor Cooper. Have enough confidence and diplomacy to show that they may know more than you do about the job. "Assume the worst," he says. "Assume they feel threatened or resent you, and then show you need their advice, their experience."

It's a policy that has got 25-year-old Asda trainee Justin Cowley out of a tricky spot or two. As deputy store manager in Manchester's Moss Side, his aim is to avoid using disciplinary procedures at all costs. Indeed, he's only once had to fire someone caught stealing as part of company regulations, and not without a great deal of personal pain and support from senior managers.

"I try to combat anger by keeping calm. It's very hard for people to continue being angry when someone is being polite - it's frustrating for them but it calms people down. The worst thing is to get wound up - then they can push you further." Remember, he says, you have somebody's livelihood in your hands, so pay them due respect and focus your efforts. Nip a problem in the bud - often through something as simple as changing someone's shifts or giving them leave - and you'll save yourself time in the longer run.

If all else fails, however, you may have to turn to formal disciplinary proceedings - one verbal and two written warnings. Of course, they're best avoided, stresses Ms Allcock, but remember that "they're not a way of punishing, they're a way of cutting out personality clashes and favouritism and helping people keep their jobs". Refer to the company's written standards; agree on targets - as simple as avoiding lateness, for instance - and review them at set intervals. "Your job is to create an environment where people can perform. You want to be someone people can confide in but you have to accept that there are people at work who just don't want to do what they are doing, and if they can get away with something, they will."

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?