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Negative employees: How to keep one from spoiling the whole bunch


Do you have a bad apple that’s spoiling the whole bunch? Negativity in the workplace can be contagious and affect your whole team. But how do you approach employees about their bad attitudes?

Negativity can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from poor employee performance or a bad attitude to not contributing to the team.

This behavior can affect your other employees and your business’s bottom line in many ways:

  • Morale – Misery loves company, and when your team is focusing on what’s wrong, it’s hard to recognize what’s right with the department.
  • Resentment – If you, as the leader, do nothing about a negative person, the rest of the team may grow to resent you, and in a wicked twist, become part of the negative element.
  • Turnover and absenteeism – Other employees, some of whom may be your A players, won’t want to put up with the negativity, even if other aspects of their jobs are rewarding. They may not show up for work if they’re scheduled to work with a difficult employee, or even get to a point where they seek greener pastures. Now, you’re dealing with the cost of finding and onboarding new employees.
  • Teamwork and productivity – People won’t want to work with “Negative Nick,” and productivity can suffer because of it.
  • Client dissatisfaction – If your negative employees deal with customers, watch out. They may not be giving the level of service that your customers expect.
  • Profitability – If you’re missing deadlines because of productivity, you may lose jobs or get a reputation for not delivering. If you can’t produce results, your customers won’t be happy and they’ll go somewhere else.
  • Liability – Your other employees may get to a point where they feel they’re working in a hostile environment, leading to potential claims against your company.

It’s time for a talk

If there’s an employee whose behavior is having a negative impact on the department, you need to nip it in the bud. Be timely about it because negativity can spread like wildfire.

When talking to your employees, let them know that the negative attitude is a performance issue. When they are disrupting the team, not contributing and affecting productivity, it’s as if they’re not performing their job responsibilities.

Discuss how their behavior affects the team, the company and their relationships. Be very clear about what’s expected – and outlined in your company policies –and make sure they understand what will happen if the behavior continues.

You can start the conversation by reminding your employee that in addition to performing job duties, it’s company policy to respect the rights and feelings of others and refrain from behavior that is harmful to himself, co-workers or the company. A negative attitude affects all of those.

Deal with negativity on a case-by-case basis. An employee’s bad behavior may be a result of stress or personal issues. Let them know that you see a change in attitude, and it’s having a negative effect on the team and company. You want your employees to be successful, and if it’s an issue that can be helped through your employee assistance program, remind them it’s available.

Although each case will be unique, you should be consistent in how you deal with employees. For example, if you react quickly when Nancy gets out of line, but you let Nick go a few weeks bringing everyone down, you may be seen as giving preferential treatment.

If it’s not getting better

As a leader or manager, you should keep a diary of each of your employees. It will include notes on what they do well and where they need development. This is also where you can note when you’ve talked to them about their behavior – good or bad.

What is considered good documentation?

  • Accuracy. Provide facts, omit opinions
  • Concise. Don’t generalize. This can be seen as subjective as well.
  • Specific. Include facts and specific examples.
  • Professional. Follow company policies and omit emotions from notes.

With the above in mind, here are a couple of examples of diary entries:

Positive entry

Scott has improved our process in the customer billing department, therefore we have been seeing an increase of at least 15 percent in revenue. I will be keeping him in mind for a promotion.

Negative entry

I announced to the management group that we would be eliminating the Accounts Receivable position and redistributing the workload among three other employees. During the meeting today, Joan’s tone of voice and body language expressed anger. At one point she mumbled something about my being a liar and that she should have known better than to trust management. Joan was given a verbal warning on March 10 referencing our policy on guidelines for appropriate conduct, which sets expectations on effective communication, maintaining a high degree of professionalism and respect for all employees at all times.

If you see negativity popping up too much in a diary, it may be time to take the talks to the next level.

You can implement a progressive discipline process, where you start with verbal coaching, then onto written counseling, and if things don’t change, it could lead to termination.

You’ll want to talk to your human resources specialist for what the process includes and how to document it. The key words here are being fair and consistent with the process.

What is acceptable behavior?

There are federal laws that protect your employees from harassment and discrimination. Beyond those, some managers believe that behavior issues are subjective and unenforceable. That’s not the case.

If you outline what your company deems “acceptable behavior” in your company policies, then it is no longer subjective or emotional. It becomes a performance issue.

Revisit your company culture, your core values and your handbook to make sure they speak to how your employees will treat others – including co-workers and customers. Your core values could include things such as:

  • Respect for the worth of the individual
  • Commitment to high standards
  • Contributing to the community
  • Achievement through teamwork

The idea of behavior competencies can be implemented throughout the whole employment lifeline.

  • Put behavioral competencies such as dependability, communication and collaboration in job descriptions.
  • Have guidelines for appropriate behavior such as professionalism, taking initiative and respect for others in your company policies or employee handbooks. It becomes part of your company culture.
  • Make behavioral competencies part of the employee’s quarterly/annual/etc. performance evaluation.

When you take your company handbook out of mothballs and make it a living document, your employees will know what is expected of them. So, if they happen to get a little off course, you’ll be able to guide them with support from your company’s policies and core values.

You can tell them, “Even though what you’re doing isn’t illegal on a federal or state level, it’s against our policies.”

You gotta walk the walk

As a business leader, it’s easy to talk the talk. You know what the company culture should be. But do you walk the walk? When it comes down to it, your behavior will be the model for how employees act, how they treat each other and how they work as a team.

If you’re not committed to the values, you can’t expect your employees to be.

You don’t have to do it alone

Making sure your handbook, job descriptions and performance reviews include behavioral competencies takes time. And dealing with human resources issues can take a back seat to more pressing issues – like whether your customers are happy or your bills are paid.

You don’t have to go it alone. Insperity can help your managers be better leaders through training programs. In addition, we can help write job descriptions, get your handbook in order and take care of performance and benefits management so that you can focus on your business.

To learn more about how an effective human resources plan can boost your bottom line, download our free e-book, How to Develop a Top-Notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.