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Symmetry Authors

Symmetry Video Series


Motivating Employees: HR tips for getting employees motivated and engaged with your company.

Overcoming Bad Attitudes and Complaints

It’s no secret that it doesn’t take much to poison the workplace atmosphere. Everyone gets bad-tempered at work sometimes. Chronic negativity is a different story. Co-workers who are consistently nasty and complaining can sap the very lifeblood out of your workplace.

Here are six solutions for handling problem employees’ bad attitudes and unprofessional behavior before morale suffers.

1. Correcting an otherwise capable employee whose constant complaining is not only turning the atmosphere negative, and undermining the efforts of a new manager.

It's tempting to avoid the issue and ignore a constant complainer, since it’s hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously. Sooner or later, though, the complaints will lead to a confrontation that can seriously undermine a manager's authority. This subordinate is challenging not only management's patience, but also its authority. He/she must be disciplined. Here are some suggestions for disciplining a chronic complainer.

  • You must be able to show that the employee's behavior violates company policy. No one would question a manager's right to discipline an employee who refuses to fulfill job requirements. Harsh discipline for an employee who doesn't like the new menu in the cafeteria would be inappropriate.
  • Take complaints seriously. Investigate complaints fully and get back to the employee with an answer. Some constant complainers stop grumbling when they see how ridiculous their grievances appear under formal scrutiny.
  • Do not undertake a major disciplinary action by building a case based on a lot of minor complaints. Putting an employee under extensive scrutiny or building a file filled with reprimands or unsatisfactory evaluations will make matters worse. Each complaint should be judged on its own, immediately after it is filed.
  • Don’t let complaints deter you from appropriate discipline. Complainers might argue that your discipline is in retaliation for one or more of their complaints. You have a right to discipline any employee whose behavior or performance has been unsatisfactory, whether or not he/she has filed a complaint.
  • A chronic complainer may be speaking only for him/herself—or reflecting the sentiments of a whole team. It’s never a good idea to totally ignore the complaints. Check with colleagues and co-workers to see if there's any validity to the comments.
  • Be a sounding board. Many managers avoid a problem employee. Try the opposite: take on their complaints with a timely investigation. You may find out more than you expect. Many times, people who act in a negative way are really looking for an outlet, someone who will listen and reassure them. Give them the attention they're seeking and you may greatly diminish the problem.


2. Dealing with an employee who talks to our customers about his long hours and low pay and how underappreciated he is. Can he be legally fired for making the company look bad to our customers?

The short answer is no. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the right to discuss their wages and other terms and conditions of employment, whether it's with one another, with the media, or with customers.

Note: The NLRA doesn't protect statements that cause damage to the business; it's not likely to protect disloyal, defamatory, or maliciously false statements. It also doesn't protect statements that don't address the employer's labor practices.

3. The best way to manage an employee with a personality problem before discipline becomes inevitable

The next time you're exasperated by persistent personality problem try the following:

  • Be specific. Give clear-cut examples of what is unacceptable about the behavior. Example: "When you ask for help from the IT department, I expect you to submit the request using the appropriate form, to explain politely and specifically what you need, and to thank them in advance for their assistance." Now you've set a standard that can be met (solving your problem) or missed (helping you document your case).
  • Don't give up too early. It’s not enough to tell the employee he/she has a problem. Determine if the problem is personal or professional. Begin by looking at workplace. For instance, has your department recently been under a great deal of deadline pressure or is coping to manage without sufficient resources? Has the employee been assigned more — or less — responsibility? Is the job beyond his/her experience or expertise? If the problem is a professional one, there are many steps you can take before you give up on an employee, including: clarifying goals; providing extra training; or changing, eliminating, or reassigning job responsibilities.
  • Be patient. Once you've zeroed in on the exact problem and recommended a solution, allow some time for the situation to change. Make it clear that the standards for performance do not go away in a personal crisis, but that you will be as accommodating and understanding as the company allows you to be.

4. Controlling negativity before it spreads

In addition to dealing with employees individually, you should have tactics prepared for handling your workforce as a whole in order to prevent negativity from infecting everyone in the workplace. Here are some actions that will help:

  • Communicate. Make sure employees know that you have an open-door policy, and that you are willing to share what you know about events and news in, around and about the company to the best of your knowledge and ability. This will also help feed information into the office grapevine, which can help negate rumors and false information.
  • Participate. Listen to employees and sincerely take an active interest in their concerns. Make employees part of the goal-setting process, so they won't feel like they're just being ordered around.
  • Set standards. Base your judgments on behavior, not attitude. You can't control how an individual thinks, but you can limit negativity by setting consequences on behavior. For example, you may not be able to change the fact that an employee doesn't like a particular company policy, but you can emphasize what disciplinary measures may be doled out if the policy is not followed.
  • Hire right. Identify negative individuals before you hire them. During the job interview, listen for feelings that "life isn't fair" in response to the following questions.
  • Have you ever felt you've been treated unfairly in the past? Why? How did you react?
  • What were your chief concerns about management in your previous jobs?
  • If given the chance, what would you have changed if you were the manager at your last job?

5. Two employees have a classic personality conflict and squabble constantly. Their jobs require them to interact with each other. What's the best way to stop their arguing?

Make it clear that you find this behavior unacceptable. Tell both employees they need to put their petty differences behind them. While they do not have to like each other, they do need to act professionally and respectfully. Manage their performance only; do not try to solve their interpersonal differences if they are not job-related. Finally, warn them of potential disciplinary consequences if their behavior doesn't change.

Make sure that you don't allow the employees to offer justifications or blame the other person. Each must take responsibility for his/her own behavior and do not negotiate the expectations you have defined for them.

6. An employee was put on a performance improvement plan. She refused to sign it unless she could add her own comments. Now what?

You can’t accommodate every demand of a difficult employee, but there's nothing wrong with allowing her to attach a separate sheet with her comments. Her views are being noted, but you are not changing any of the terms or expectations of the improvement plan in response to her comments.

Be sure to explain to the employee that her signature does not signify that she agrees with the plan, just that she has read it. Allowing her to attach her comments is further proof that she was warned.

Finally, be clear that even if she disagrees with the plan, she must still abide by it. The consequence of noncompliance is termination.