Good Work + Bad Attitude = Bad News

Managers face a variety of employee challenges every day. Many challenges are easily defined: it is often simple to identify low-performing employees, burned-out employees, new employees who need extensive orientation and existing employees who need training or retraining. It may be more difficult to address the challenge of the employee who does good work with a bad attitude. An attitude of rudeness, malice or disrespect can be one of the most insidious threats to workplace collaboration. Furthermore, a bad attitude can be disastrous for productivity. A manager focused on productivity may be tempted to overlook an employee’s negative attitude, especially if that employee is among a library’s top performers. But a bad attitude can ultimately impact the productivity of co-workers, which can denigrate the team and preclude accomplishment of team goals.

How Bad is Bad?

“Bad,” of course, is relative. The manager’s course of action is defined by the manifestation of the employee’s attitude. Consider the following questions when assessing the nature, expression and consequences of an employee’s negative attitude:

  • Is the employee keeping attitudes and opinions to himself?
  • Is the employee sharing her attitude with peer employees? Quietly? Non-verbally? At the “top of her voice?” Through rumors?  On work time? At break? At lunch?
  • Even though the employee’s work isn’t suffering, is the work of other employees suffering?
  • Does management have to spend time correcting for the effect of this employee’s attitude on the productivity of other employees?
  • Have there been absences or patterns of absences away from work or aspects of work?
  • Has the employee demonstrated “opposite behavior”? For example, is he silent when he previously would have been talkative?
  • Does her body language indicate unhappiness or negativity? Does she sit with arms akimbo or arms crossed? Does she roll his eyes or sigh when approached?
  • Has there been a change in work behaviors? For example, does he no longer volunteer for committees when once he did?
  • Has there been a change in social behaviors? For instance, has she radically changed her at-work social network?

When Should I Address the Attitudes of My Employees?

It is neither possible nor desirable to confront every employee who complains. Consider taking action in the following instances:

  • If the employee’s work seems to suffer as a result of his own negative attitude. The employee might not realize that his work is suffering.
  • If the employee’s attitude seems to cause other employees to suffer as a result of her negative attitude.
  • If the employee shares her complaints with co-workers during work hours in a way that creates tension, hinders collaboration or productivity.
  • If the employee shares his complaints with co-workers after hours, if the negative attitude directly affects the performance of other employees
  • If the employee inappropriately expresses negative views about management or policies to patrons or customers.

What Happens If I Don’t Address the Attitude Problem?

If managers don’t deal with attitude problems, there is a strong possibility that other employees may either begin to exhibit the same bad attitude and/or their work performance may suffer. In addition, managers who hide from such conflict may lose credibility with employees and supervisors. Employees often feel that managers who ignore this challenge will be less likely to address other, more serious, issues.

How Should I Express My Concerns?

Informal

A manager might choose to initiate a private, verbal discussion as the first step of the disciplinary process. It is important to be as specific as possible when voicing your concerns, so avoid relying on supposition or third party reports. Consider the following examples when preparing to speak with an employee:

Constructive

“Your email regarding X was accurate, but the approach you took was a negative one, and the words and phrases you used indicated to me that you had a negative view of the outcome of the project. Specifically, your email was negative because . . .”

Not Recommended

“Your email seemed to be negative. What’s wrong?”
“I was told (or, several people told me) that your email seemed to be negative. Why are you so negative?”

Formal

If the first, informal, reprimand was unsuccessful, a manager might issue a formal reprimand by  providing written documentation to the employee. The following examples might help a manager craft a formal reprimand:

Constructive

“Thank you for meeting with me. This meeting is being held to discuss statements that you made on x date and to the following individuals . . . These statements were negative and the following words and phrases are not appropriate for use in the workplace . . . Cease this language immediately.”

Not Recommended

“Please let this memo serve as notice that your attitude is inappropriate for the workplace. You need to change your attitude.”

How Do I Document a Formal Reprimand?

During the formal process of progressive discipline or an annual evaluation, a manager may discover that the organization’s documents or evaluation form does not provide a space for comments on an employee’s attitude. In this instance, managers should record the formal meetings under any of the following headings: communication, teamwork, work with others and/or organizational culture. As a last resort, managers should provide documentation of the reprimands under “other” or “comments.”

Again, it is neither possible nor recommended to dictate the attitudes of employees. But the manager has the right, and responsibility, to moderate the expression negative attitudes. Workplace morale relies on the cooperation of individuals and/or teams within the culture of the organization. Managers must not only focus on product and process but also attitude to both correct behavior and ensure the best possible performance.