Difficult, more difficult and impossible employees

News article

The duties of a supervisor include cooperation and getting along with employees. But how can you cope with a difficult subordinate?

This article was first published in 2011 and we are now republishing it in an updated form because it is one of the most read articles on our online platform.

In this article, the matter is discussed from the perspective of the supervisor. Some 30 % of TEK members work as supervisors with employees under them. 

Do you recognise this Ellie Employee (E)? 

  • E slows down projects and constantly thinks of negative things to say. E acts like a bully in meetings and leaves halfway through.
  • E loudly criticises the supervisor’s instructions and disparages their methods.  E also loudly voices her criticisms of the company and its methods and procedures.
  • E spreads false information, hinders the flow of information or leaves things undone.
  • E trashes the work of colleagues but skips on her own routine work. 
  • E does not adhere to the common rules of the workplace or the supervisor’s instructions and fails to notify others of her comings and goings.
  • E does not listen or talk to her supervisor. E aims to oust the supervisor by writing complaints to the company’s top management. 

What can the supervisor do? Some tools are available.

Negotiations and squaring the matter

To maintain the positive working atmosphere and to ensure mental safety at work, supervisors must address problematic situations immediately. It is important that the supervisor has the backing of the company’s higher management.

As a rule, supervisors should be able to fix the cooperation problem on their own. They must strive to square the matter primarily by negotiation.

If an agreement to correct the employee’s behaviour cannot be reached, the supervisor may unilaterally decide on required further action. In the most flagrant cases the supervisor could also take immediate disciplinary action.


A warning is a unilateral notification from the employer that states that, according to the employer, the employee has failed to adhere to instructions, is not cooperative, or is careless in their work, for example.

The employee cannot contest the warning, but they can give their reply and state their side of the matter. For the purposes of verifiability, the warning should be personalised and issued in writing. If the behaviour mentioned in the warning is repeated, the employer may have the right to terminate the employment relationship.

Transfers or changing of duties

Working hours, work tasks or place of work may be unilaterally changed within the confines of the employment contract.

Based on their right to supervise work, supervisors can usually redistribute normal work tasks or schedule working hours differently. This right is limited by how accurately the employee’s work tasks are described in the employment contract. If an employee’s employment contract mentions daytime work, the supervisor cannot unilaterally order the employee to work in the evenings, for example.

Significant and permanent changes to the employment contract can be made when the employer has individual grounds for dismissal, i.e., when the inappropriate behaviour described in the warning is repeated. 

The terms of the employment relationship may also be changed by mutual agreement.

Termination of employment

Significant, cogent and personal cooperation problems that are specifically caused by the employee may be grounds for terminating the employment relationship.

The overall evaluation of the grounds for dismissal are affected by such factors as the topic of the employee’s behaviour, the duration of the situation, previous behaviour, the length of the employment relationship and the employee’s attitude towards their own behaviour. 

The right to give notice may also exist if the employee is so difficult that continuing the cooperation is too cumbersome for the supervisor (see the example from the Kouvola Court of Appeal).

The employee should be issued a warning before considering the termination of the employment relationship.

Some examples from the courts

  • Turku Court of Appeal S 05/1975: C repeatedly ignored the supervisor’s orders. C hindered the concentration of other employees by unnecessarily visiting their work stations. C behaved inappropriately towards their supervisor by going against orders on work methods and by being late from the morning meetings where the work tasks were assigned. C had been issued a warning. The employer had the right to dismiss C.
  • Labour court 2014:129: A had sent an inappropriate image and a threatening email to colleagues. The employer had the right to dismiss A without warning. 
  • Kouvola Court of Appeal S 05/336: E’s ability to cooperate with supervisors had gradually diminished. After an organisational change unfavourable to E, the cooperation only deteriorated further. The emails E sent to their supervisor were worded in such a way and carried such a tone that it could be said that E was not cooperating constructively with their new supervisor in all respects. Cooperation with E was overall impossible because of E’s behaviour. The employer had the right to dismiss E.

Any TEK member working as a supervisor should contact TEK’s lawyers if they are considering terminating the employment relationship of an employee on the grounds discussed in this article.

TEK members enjoy a comprehensive range of legal services

Legal advice is available both in person and through a flexible 24/7 online service. The TEK legal advisors will:

  • review draft employment and management contracts,
  • help with various employment issues,
  • advise on aspects of family and inheritance law,
  • help self-employed members in establishing a business, drafting agreements and other issues,
  • manage employment disputes and advise members involved in co-operation negotiations and other special situations.

The eLawyer service also provides answers to the most common legal questions. Also check out the TEK legal information pages and FAQ at www.tek.fi/en/legal.