Most workplaces have a few problematic employees with negative attitudes that consistently give their managers, and HR personnel, a headache. Over time, these employees have a tendency to lower morale in the entire business, bringing down productivity and eventually creating an unwelcoming and toxic work environment for other employees.

Because of this, it’s important not to ignore these issues when they crop up, but rather to address them head on in hopes of improving the problematic employee’s attitude. In this way, businesses can continue to provide a healthy and productive work environment for their team.

Identifying employees with an attitude problem

For employers and HR professionals, it’s important to understand that not all employees that occasionally cause problems necessarily have negative attitudes. Some employees might simply be lacking in good communication skills, or be unable to deal with a temporary personal or professional stressor appropriately. Bad attitudes are chronic, and have a tendency to manifest in very specific ways in terms of how they impact your business.

While a poor communicator might accidentally make co-workers uncomfortable, they’re often happy to improve themselves if given the appropriate opportunities. Employees with negative attitudes will weaken the company as a whole by actively undermining the authority of management, gossiping about managers or other employees, and destabilising the working relationships of others in the workplace. In doing so, their negative attitudes will tend to spread to other employees, becoming a toxic influence.

Communicate the problem

When sitting down with a toxic employee, it’s important to be specific about the exact issue you’re going to discuss. Simply telling an employee that they have a negative attitude that is having a harmful effect on their co-workers is unlikely to produce results. Not only is the language inherently accusatory, it’s also vague and unhelpful. Instead, be specific about how their behaviour differs from that of other employees, and what you’d like to see from them in the future. If necessary, it can be helpful to create a written code of conduct for employees to which you can then refer.

Avoid becoming defensive

Some employees may react adversarially to criticism. In this case, it’s very important not to become defensive. Frame the issue as being about productivity, the health of the workplace, and optimising their success in their role, rather than as something personal.

Document everything

Regardless how organised you are, or how promising a conversation with a problem employee is, it’s critical to ensure that both specific issues and all steps taken to resolve those problems are carefully documented. Without these, it can be difficult both to track progress, and to eventually terminate the employee if it becomes necessary.

Identify root causes

Most workers with an attitude problem aren’t irretrievably toxic. More likely, a work or personal issue is causing them significant stress that they aren’t dealing with in a healthy way. While it’s not an employer’s job to teach people how to deal with their personal issues, understanding the problem can allow you to quickly resolve the problem.

Once its been established that an employee’s behaviour needs to change, it’s a good time to try to get to the root of the problem. In many cases, an employee may simply be lashing out because of an interpersonal issue with a co-worker or manager that they don’t feel that they can address directly. If an employee seems cooperative, but unwilling to address the underlying issue, it may be a good idea to confidentially discuss the problem without a direct manager present. Often, simply moving the employee to another team, or separating them from specific team members can resolve the problem.

When employees react badly

Unfortunately, sometimes employees don’t react well to criticism, even when it’s approached in a professional manner. In this case, it’s important to know how to respond appropriately and decisively.

Dealing with stubbornness

When a toxic employee reacts by trying to deflect blame, getting sarcastic, or arguing instead of acknowledging the issue, it may become necessary to be more direct. Don’t attempt to engage in an argument, since this is likely to exacerbate the employees’ problematic attitude. While acknowledging any concerns that they have, make it clear that their behaviour is not acceptable, and that failing to work toward a solution will result in significant consequences.

Managing a hostile response

On rare occasions, an employee may become confrontational. If you suspect your conversation may result in a hostile response, it’s a good idea bring at least one other person into the meeting, and to contact security to ensure that someone is nearby if they’re needed. If an employee raises their voice, gets physical, or otherwise becomes uncontrolled, contact security immediately, and remove yourself from the situation.

While dealing with negative attitudes is both difficult and uncomfortable, it’s important to do so as soon as the issue comes to your attention. Negative attitudes can quickly affect others, dragging down the productivity and morale of their entire team. By working to resolve the problem up front, you can both protect the company, and keep other employees comfortable at work.

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