How to deal with negative employees in the workplace

By Robert Half 15 September 2018

Employees can underperform in their role, requiring additional management or training to motivate improvement back onto the right course.

But sometimes there may be an employee that is actually toxic - that is, his or her attitude and behaviour begin to infect others on the team, driving negativity or promoting disunity.

In short, this type of employee could bring trouble to your business.

There are many toxic behaviours to watch out for: constant complaining, resistance to change, passive aggressiveness, manipulation, always blaming others and disruptive gossip.

These behaviours can be harder to manage. After all, a poor attitude isn’t necessarily a disciplinary offence. Employees can be grumpy or irritable on occasion.

However, if you do identify negative employees in the workplace, don’t ignore it in the hope the person will just ‘get over it’ or things will fix themselves given time.

Like an infection, the longer you leave it, the more damage it may do. Here are some tips on how to deal with negative employees in the workplace.

The importance of listening

Sometimes toxic behaviour is a survival mechanism for a person under strain, suffering from stress, having trouble socialising with colleagues or otherwise struggling.

For example, if the employee is worried he or she might not achieve the monthly KPIs, they may decide the targets are unfair, and share this opinion with others.

Remember, a person doesn’t have to be a poor performer to experience stress and adopt a defensive attitude towards their workload and management. Such behaviour may be a sign that their performance is about to burn out.

If a previously model employee starts to develop poor behaviour, there may be active steps you and they can take to try to restore harmony. And that means discussing their behaviour with them.

Remember, negative employees in the workplace may feel their behaviour is justified, or even perfectly normal. So avoid being too confrontational in your initial discussions – such as threatening discipline, being overly critical of their performance or challenging their job security – as this may cause the employee to become even more defensive and negative towards you and the business.

However, also avoid becoming their best mate – or worse, their counsellor.

Sometimes the employee may not have been aware of the impact of their behaviour. A reasonable discussion may result in some agreed-upon actions, such as enforcing that long-overdue leave, agreeing on a code of conduct or supporting them with a mentor or extra training.

Of course, the employee may suggest that their attitude is in response to other factors, such as a lack of management appreciation or worsening work conditions. It’s up to you to decide whether these are justified and if an adjustment to the management style may also be necessary.

Performance management

Negative employees in the workplace will eventually link to poorer performance – as either a cause or a symptom. But that doesn’t mean your best performer can’t still display toxic behaviours, damaging the cohesion and performance of your team in other ways.

Naturally, it’s easier to follow a performance management process with an employee who fails to repeatedly achieve their KPIs. That is why an agreed-upon code of conduct that applies to all staff can make even the best performer accountable for any toxic behaviour.

However, you need to ensure that you consistently enforce the rules and expectations of the workplace across all staff. You may aggravate resentment if the employee feels they are being singled out for specific criticism or performance management.

Thus it’s vital to make detailed notes of your observations, their performance and any conversation or formal review. Should you need to take further action, your notes will need to demonstrate your efforts to resolve the issues with insufficient improvement in their performance over a reasonable period.

Dealing with negative employees in the workplace

Unfortunately, negative employees in the workplace may not improve, despite your best efforts to turn them around.

Sometimes, you may simply have hired a ‘bad apple’ – an individual whose behaviour is not a temporary symptom, but part of who they are.

Have you ever had negative employees in the workplace? If so, did you manage to turn the situation around? Share in the comments section below.

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