HR · 25 September 2019

How to handle an employee with an attitude problem

Dealing with an incompetent employee is one thing, more than that it’s straightforward. If there’s proven evidence they’re unable to perform the tasks required of them, ultimately they will be asked to leave the business. What’s more complicated, however, is when a business owner is grappling with a capable and even talented employee, but they have one fundamental flaw – an attitude problem.

Why it’s so difficult

Workplace stress
Dreading ‘the chat’ with a negative employee?

Managing an employee with a bad attitude is not only irritating for the employer in question, but it can also be contagious.

Within smaller businesses especially, an employee that’s increasingly vocal about their sub-par attitude can infect other team members – bringing down collective moral with a crash.

Not only this, but a negative attitude in the workplace can also have a negative impact on staff turnover rates and profitability.

A bad attitude can damage profits

Other staff members may be tempted to look elsewhere for work if their daily work environment’s being infected by a colleague with a negative and demoralising attitude. This could ultimately lead to an understaffed and overworked team.

What’s even more frightening for employers is the idea of this negative influence raising its head when the said employee is dealing with clients head-on. In any business, staff should be the ultimate brand ambassadors. From a client’s point of view, a negative interaction with a brand employee could permanently damage or even terminate a business relationship for good.

What to look out for…

Here’s how to identify an employee with a bad attitude according to software firm, Natural HR

  • They undermine their manger’s authority and criticise their decisions
  • They complain about their workload, customers, colleagues and the business at large
  • They exaggerate problems with the company, including mistakes made by the company or colleagues
  • They gossip about colleagues and senior staff to cause tension between teams and individuals

Preparing to have ‘the chat’

Are you fully prepared to sit down with your employee and talk things through?

Before you sit down with the employee and confront them about their behaviour. It’s important to think about how you’re going to approach and frame the discussion that needs to be had.

Separating the behaviour from the individual

Even though it’s easy to do so, especially if you’re stressed and exhausted from this situation, do avoid verbally attacking the person. Instead, frame the conversation around the negative impact their behaviour is having on other staff, and even potentially the business at large. Avoid any attacks on the individual.

Having these ‘codes of conduct’ in any business ensures that everyone knows where they stand and what’s expected of them on a social and cultural level at work.

Remember, ‘they’, (the employee in question), isn’t solely defined their behaviour, and make this sentiment clear in your discussion (even if you think it’s not true). Blaming and shaming the individual will only cause resentment in the employee and lead to a redundant meeting.

Look to the future

Office conflicts
Remember to look to the positives when having this kind of conversation with an employee.

Then come in with evidence, including how their behaviour has been negative and damaging to the business and their colleagues, and that other members of the team have noticed it.

Following this, bring in some ‘horizon’ points that indicate that changing their attitude will have an overall positive effect on the workforce including that collective morale would improve with the workplace potentially becoming a more enjoyable place to be.

Have some ethics policies in place

Ensure that you have an unofficial handbook that details for future and current staff, the modes of conduct, ethics and behaviour that are expected in your workplace. To avoid it sounding draconian you can even tie these points loosely into your mission statement and into any information you share about your company culture and background.

Don’t make concrete points or rules, it’s more about conveying a feeling about what constitutes acceptable behaviour in your business.

The impact…

Having these ‘codes of conduct’ in any business ensures that everyone knows where they stand and what’s expected of them on a social and cultural level at work.

It also means that when employees fall short of these standards, these incidences can be used to cross-reference exactly how an employee is underperforming. However, it’s important that this information is widely shared on company websites and when onboarding staff so that no one feels misinformed about what’s acceptable at work and what’s not.

What to do in the meeting

It’s also important to ensure this meeting is as professional as possible, which means having other staff members there too, whether that’s a senior employee or a member of your HR team. The important point(s) to make are:

a) this isn’t a personal attack but an opportunity to make some positive change

b) this feedback isn’t just coming from ‘the boss’ but other employees too, making it a team-issue.

Don’t…

Here’s what to avoid when confronting an employee about their behaviour.
  • make them feel uncomfortable or awkward, make clear that these kinds of confrontations are never ideal, find common ground and even humour in the situation before you turn to the serious matters
  • make it personal or negative, emphasise that a change of behaviour could bring about positive results, the error lies with the bad behaviour, not the individual
  • go in all guns blazing without any evidence, refer to specific incidences where the person has showcased a negative attitude
  • talk over the employee or feel tempted to fill the awkward silences that might arise, let them say their piece, which will make them feel that the interaction is a fair and balanced one
  • be tempted to fill awkward silences as ill-prepared comments may weaken your argument
  • single them out, instead, use words like ‘we’ instead of ‘you’, for example, ‘we’ have noticed this negative behaviour, avoid overuse of the word ‘you’ as you could make them feel victimised
  • overuse conjunctive adverbs such as ‘however’ or ‘on the other hand’, if you’re praising something about their character, then say ‘however, X is not as impressive’, they might think that you’re incapable of giving them positive feedback without immediately going into the negative

Do…

  • make them feel comfortable, included and with an equal voice in the ensuing discussion – but be armed with evidence, witnesses and culture codes as you do it!

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Annie May is the Features Editor at Real Business and Business Advice. Following her graduation from LSE, she embarked upon a freelance career in current affairs journalism. Annie has written on subjects varying from African history and contemporary politics to community business and current affairs news in London. At Real Business and Business Advice, Annie is passionate about highlighting inclusive and diverse business disruptors and organisations for our evolving readership. Annie believes in fostering community inclusion and has volunteered for organisations such as Fairfield House, a UK based Rastafari centre and a senior citizen association for ethnic minority men and women.

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