When it comes to things like job stress and workplace social politics, we all have different levels of tolerance. Left unchecked, one person’s negativity can drag the whole team down. But there’s an art to managing employees with bad attitudes.

In this article we cover the steps needed to tackle employee negativity in your organisation:

  1. Discuss the issue privately with the employee
  2. Make it clear this is about managing their attitude, not performance
  3. Educate, don’t berate
  4. Be clear and specific about what you find unacceptable
  5. Find the root cause
  6. Get on the same page about moving forward

What do we mean by bad employee attitudes?

What we mean is that some employees bring negativity with them into the workplace. They aren’t necessarily even bad at their jobs. In fact, highly negative employees can be the most difficult to deal with when their actual performance is above reproach.

Managing employees with bad attitudes can be complicated. That’s because, unfortunately workplace negativity can take a lot of different forms:

  • Constant complaining about the business or their workload.
  • Being rude or dismissive of their co-workers.
  • Undermining and second-guessing the decisions of managers.
  • Spreading rumors and exacerbating social politics.

However, that first point especially comes with an addendum: Although an employee with a bad attitude may be prone to whining about the business and exaggerating its mistakes, it’s important to distinguish these employees from those offering genuine critical feedback.

It’s one thing if someone is disrupting the team’s workflow by constantly complaining. It’s another entirely if they’re using formal feedback processes like an employee check-in. The feedback they offer can just so happens to be negative. In these cases, those people shouldn’t be treated like they’re causing problems just because you don’t like what you hear.

But general passive negativity isn’t all you’ve got to worry about. We can’t ignore the fact that almost 30% of adults have experienced bullying in the workplace. That equates to over 76 million people in the US alone.

Why does my employee have trouble managing their attitude?

Unfortunately, there’s no one thing responsible for the attitudes of your team members taking a nose-dive. But there are a few common causes we’d like to talk about.

Poor wellbeing

With the sheer uncertainty of the last few years, wellbeing is now more important than ever. Whether it’s physical, mental, or otherwise, problems with wellbeing can devastate once highly promising employees and causing them to burn out. Managers have a duty of care to prevent this, and to boost employee resilience against job stress.

Low engagement leads to poor employee attitudes

Engagement is less of a binary switch and more of a scale. Difficult employees might simply lack engagement and be bored in their roles. As a result, even your most talented staff switch off. Or they could be actively disengaged. Even worse, extreme disengagement can even get to the point where they dislike the business, and oppose its goals.

Conflict with co-workers

As much as we all try to be professional, some people just don’t get along. Managing employees with bad attitudes gets especially tricky when personal disagreements are the cause. You have to sort through who did what while staying above the social politics, and making sure that any resolution is fair to everyone involved.

A lack of recognition

If your accomplishments are never recognized, or you don’t feel valued, it’s easy to become fed up with your experience as an employee. Ensure that you take the time as a manager to recognize what your team is doing right and reward them fairly. As well as giving them a platform for giving each other recognition. Both are essential for keeping morale high.

Being underpaid for their role

Changing companies leads to a bigger jump in salary and benefits than staying with the same employer. Sadly, loyalty doesn’t pay – at least for employees. Research reported in Forbes said: “Half of workers who changed jobs saw their pay increase nearly 10%. The median worker who stayed put saw an inflation-adjusted loss of almost 2%.” Expect to pay anywhere between 20% and 213% to replace an employee.

Workload can cause a bad attitude

Staff are constantly expected to take on more responsibilities, without the bump in pay. Unrealistic demands and not-so-discretionary discretionary effort go unchecked in most companies. This leads to feeling overwhelmed, under-appreciated and burnt-out. No wonder your staff have a poor attitude!

Seeing themselves as carrying the team

Some people just have an inflated sense of self. Coaching employees with a negative attitude can get really frustrating when they’re convinced that they’re your MVP. You’ll often have to deal with them talking down to their teammates, if not outright badmouthing them.

The frustration of working with difficult people

One of the trickier parts of managing employees with bad attitudes is preventing those attitudes from spreading to the rest of your team. That’s because a chain is as strong as its weakest link, and a team is only as happy as its grumpiest member. Research shows that toxic employees can seriously disrupt things for everyone around them. In the presence of a toxic employee:

  • 80% of colleagues worry about the offending employee’s rudeness.
  • 78% become less committed to the organisation.
  • 25% of co-workers on the receiving end vent their frustrations at customers.
  • 63% of employees feel they have to go out of their way to avoid offending a co-worker, which disrupts their own productivity.

Employees who can’t keep a lid on their bad attitudes are liable to disrupt their team’s productivity. Above all, if they’re always complaining or arguing, it’ll distract others in their workspace. If they’re constantly second-guessing their boss, it can make it more difficult for progressive managers to secure employee buy-in for new policies intended to create positive change.

This will ruin the workplace culture you’ve worked so hard to develop. If bad attitudes can’t be reined in, the rest of your staff will inevitably get fed up and become disengaged. At that point, you’ll lose people to turnover. Even people who aren’t driven away can soak up their negative colleague’s bad habits.

6 steps to tackle employees with bad attitudes

Managing employees with bad attitudes is all about tact and mitigation. You need to be careful, to avoid driving a negative employee further away. And you need to handle the issue before they cause trouble for your other workers. When coaching an employee with a negative attitude, remember:

1. Discuss the issue privately with the employee

For people on the receiving end of extreme negativity, it might be satisfying to see you take the offending individual down a peg. But don’t be tempted. Calling someone out is embarrassing, and likely to just make them dig their heels in.

2. Make it clear this is about managing a bad attitude, not poor performance

These conversations can be awkward, and employees may feel attacked. Be clear that this isn’t about the quality of their work, and even be ready to reference their previous accomplishments. This can also prevent high-performing employees using their status as a shield against criticism.

3. Educate, don’t berate

If you want your employee to actually listen to what you have to say, don’t tell them off for their negativity. Instead, this conversation should be about helping them learn to see the consequences of their behavior, which requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence from both of you.

4. Be specific about what is and isn’t acceptable

If someone makes a really general assertion about your personality, it’s easy to shrug it off. But, if they point out things that you remember doing, it’s much harder to deny. Having clear examples of problematic behavior also helps you illustrate what your employees with bad attitudes can do differently.

5. Find the root cause of the employee’s bad attitude

When managing employees with bad attitudes, you’ve got to remember that these things don’t happen for no reason. While you shouldn’t pry into their personal lives, it’s possible your employee’s negative attitude might have a cause that you could do something about. They be struggling with work/life balance, or they could even be experiencing abuse from somewhere else in the organisation.

6. Get on the same page about moving forward

By the end of the conversation, you and your employee need to have a shared understanding about how you’ll proceed. That should cover what they’ll try to do differently, as well as the steps you’ll take to address the cause of their negativity.

If you’ve taken the time to discuss the issue at length, and the employee isn’t receptive to change, or doesn’t see what they did wrong, then you may have to consider disciplinary action, a transfer to another team, or even firing them altogether. But, by taking the time to talk the issue through in a non-hostile, emotionally intelligent way, you’ll minimize the chances of it coming to that.