How to Deal with Negative Employees at Work

Phillip Perry Square Headshot

Do your employees play well with shoppers? Do they engage with the public in ways that spark sales and promote loyalty?

In the best of worlds you would always answer yes. Fact is, though, every business has some employees who have a tendency to look on the dark side of things — a habit that can create negative interactions with customers. And even the sunniest workers have bad days. The cause might be a perceived snub from a supervisor. Or maybe it’s a marital crisis or a financial issue.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same: a grumpy employee who alienates customers. And that means lost sales and lower profits.

Negativity can take many forms. Here are three examples:

  • James is speaking to another employee, bad-mouthing a customer who just left the store. (Worse still, another customer is overhearing his remarks.)
  • You overhear Margareta telling a customer “Management really stinks here.”
  • Andre says “It’s not my job” when asked to help out when a customer needs a special service.

Act quickly

All of those events — and others like them — can alienate customers and dent your bottom line. That’s why it’s important to take action before matters get worse.

“Quick attention is essential in dealing with negative behavior,” says Ian Jacobsen, a management consultant based in Morgan Hill, Ca. "Issues that are allowed to fester can grow out of proportion and become the impetus for still more negative behavior.”

An employee who is not confronted about undesirable workplace activity will assume the practice is acceptable, notes Jacobsen. Moreover, because “one bad apple spoils the bunch” destructive behavior can spread to other workers. Soon your high-performing employees will start to get frustrated because they have to pick up the work left by the slackers. Finally, as destructive attitudes spread you may start to be viewed as a manager who cannot handle challenging employees. 

Gather data

Acting fast is one thing. But just what should you do? Start by engaging with the employee involved. “Take the employee aside and describe exactly what you have seen or heard,” says Jacobsen. 

Here’s an example of such a description, based on a supervisory response to the first of this article’s opening scenarios:

“James, I heard you talking with Amy about one of our customers who had just left the store. You stated that the customer was ‘a pain in the neck.’ This is inconsistent with what I would expect from you. What was that about?” 

Notice that the words reflect the position of an observer who is simply gathering data. Avoid using terms that suggest a value judgment or cast a bad light on the employee’s intentions or motivation. Terms such as “bad-mouthing” or “rudeness” or “negative behavior” can quickly backfire by putting the employee on the defensive. And an employee who is trying to defend actions is not in the right mindset to work with you to resolve behavior issues.

“Think of yourself as being like a newspaper reporter just reporting the facts,” advises Jacobsen.

Once you have stated what you observed, listen to the employee’s response. “Don’t interrupt,” says Jacobsen. “Instead, wait for a break in the answer and then ask any further questions you need to understand the situation.”

To continue our example, James might offer the information that a few days earlier the customer had changed his mind several times in stating what he wanted from a service the store was offering. The frustration in dealing with the customer had angered James. As a result he found himself letting off steam when dealing with that customer again.

With this information you have already gone a long way toward resolving the problem. Your data gathering has uncovered what is affecting James’s behavior: A short fuse when it comes to difficult customers. 

Once the employee has explained what happened, summarize what you have heard to demonstrate that you understand. Then ask if your summary is accurate. If not, ask for further clarification.

The next step is to get the employee invested in a self-generated solution so the behavior does not recur. “Once the employee affirms that your summary is accurate, ask how the situation could have been handled better,” advises Jacobsen.

Using the last example, you might say something like this:

“James, I realize that some of our customers can be demanding in terms of service and time. It’s not okay to say something like what you said about them, and the matter was made worse because another customer overheard what you said. How could you have handled this better?”

James might come up with a solution like “count to ten (or take a quick walk around the store) when feeling the urge to blow off steam.” 

“If the employee suggests a better way, and it is acceptable, go for it,” says Jacobsen. “He has come up with a way to solve the problem.” And that’s good—compliance will be better if the employee agrees to a self-generated solution rather than one imposed by the boss.

If the employee can’t think of a better way, then explain how you would like the situation handled in the future and ask if he or she can do that. 

In our example, you might suggest that the individual speak with you or a supervisor after dealing with a difficult customer, because talking about bad experiences can reduce their negative effects. If a behavior has been serious enough you may wish to confirm what has transpired in writing and provide a copy to the employee. 

And don’t forget your follow-through. “There is an old adage: ‘If you expect, you’ve got to inspect,’” says Jacobsen. “Check back from time to time to see if the employee has adopted the desired behavior. If so, commendation is in order. If not, take the person aside again and repeat the above process.” You might also agree with the employee on a day to follow up, and mark your calendar so it doesn’t fall through the cracks.

Think like a coach, not dictator

Notice an important characteristic about the above approach: It represents the work of a coach, not a dictator. “Do not be heavy handed; do not use more muscle than necessary,” says Dr. Lois P. Frankel, a partner at Corporate Coaching International, Los Angeles. “In the old days managers would say something like this: ‘I have to tell you that if I hear of this behavior again your employment may be jeopardized.’ That was considered progressive. But not anymore. Today you want to turn around the situation with the least disruption.”

Helping people improve their performance can also make the corrective process more palatable for the boss. “Too many bosses don’t have these difficult conversations because they are seen as confrontational” says Frankel. “Replace that confrontational cap with a coach cap. Tell yourself this: ‘My job is to bring out the best in people and make a company that is well functioning.’”

Improve conditions

Your data gathering activity may uncover a surprising fact: an underlying problem in the workplace needs to be addressed. This issue may be causing negative feelings on the part of other employees as well. “When the performance or attitude of a good employee starts to deteriorate, that can be a sign that something is going wrong in the workplace,” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in St. Louis. “You want to find out what it is--and nip it in the bud.”

Let’s take our second scenario from this article’s opening. Why did Margareta tell a customer “Management really stinks here?” During your data-gathering discussion described earlier, Margareta may tell you something like this: “We used to have flextime and they took that away last month.” 

Your response should acknowledge both the issue and your desire to meet the employee’s needs. You might say something like this: 

“I kind of feel the same; I wish that had not gone away. But let’s talk about how your needs can be met.” 

While your workplace might not be able to offer flextime, it might be able to offer individuals a little more leeway in adjusting schedules to meet family needs. Changes that arise from coaching sessions can modify the workplace in ways that benefit all employees and result in great customer satisfaction.

Tougher action

Of course, this article has been talking about the occasional negative actions of good employees. Persistent negative behavior requires tougher action. “If the behavior is persistent, then there must be accountability,” says Avdoian. 

Consider the third entry in this article’s opening scenarios. Andre, who said that a requested service was “not my job,” needs to be reminded that “we’re all in this together” and that every employee has to be ready to pitch in with duties that may well be outside of the parameters outlined in a job description. 

The coaching procedure outlined in this article should help Andre come around to a better attitude. If not, then the only remaining option is to refer to your organization’s progressive disciplinary measures that lead to termination.

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