Beth Braccio Hering

negative-employees-450x350pxOn the surface, Loretta looks like an ideal employee. She consistently gets her work done correctly and on time, sometimes even taking on additional assignments during busy seasons. She’s rarely late, dresses professionally, maintains good hygiene, and bakes a dreamy banana bread for the monthly potluck breakfast.

Why, then, do team members often try to stay away from Loretta? The bottom line: her negative attitude.

Listening to Loretta, it is a wonder anybody would work for the organization (or even get up in the morning, for that matter). According to her, the “fat cats” at the top care only about their wallets. New workers are “subpar” because colleges nowadays teach Mickey Mouse courses. Dr. Seuss would be more qualified to treat an illness than the so-called professionals available on the company’s healthcare plan. Beautiful summer day? She’ll say the sun will be down by the time any of them get to go home.

The dangers of negative employees

Difficult people like Loretta pose a challenge to the rest of your team. Specific examples of how workplace negativity can take a toll include:

Poor team morale

Other staff members grow tired of hearing negative comments. Moods plummet. Teamwork suffers because others try to avoid being around the toxic employee.



A bad apple can spoil the bunch. Instead of contending with just one negative person, a manager may soon have a whole team of grumpy pessimists. This type of company culture can affect productivity, retention rates, customer service, and stress levels. Actions such as introducing a change in company policies become more challenging. Instead of approaching matters with a positive attitude, people may follow the lead of the negative employee and immediately focus on potential drawbacks.

Hindering confidence

A colleague’s bad attitude can make others doubt their own abilities or their potential to accomplish goals. Say, for instance, two team members spend a great deal of time preparing for a presentation that they hope will land the company a new client. Before they leave, their Debbie Downer co-worker remarks to not be too disappointed when their audience signs with a rival firm because there’s no way they would choose a smaller place like us. The words have a negative impact going into the big event.

Dealing with an employee’s negativity

Co-workers vary in how they approach a fellow team member’s negative behavior. Avoidance certainly ranks highly. Some may attempt to point out the bright side of things or otherwise engage in a positive counter conversation. Many will ignore the comments, laugh them off, or roll their eyes — figuring you can’t change someone’s personality or that engaging simply isn’t worth the effort. Frustrated listeners may argue, abruptly change the subject, or tell the offender they simply do not want to hear negative comments.

For managers, a negative employee poses challenges from many angles. Leaders may try the same tactics, but limiting contact with someone you oversee is not easy nor conducive to business operations. Managers also have an obligation to maintain a positive work environment. Allowing negative behavior to go unchecked does co-workers and customers a disservice.

Especially in situations like that of Loretta where the negative person in question is otherwise an acceptable or even above-average employee, managers may hesitate to speak up or take action. However, failure to address means the problem will continue.

What might lead to improvement? Consider these ideas:

Conduct a 1:1 chat

As obvious as the problem may seem to everyone else, sometimes negative people do not realize they are doing anything wrong or bothersome. They may not grasp the extent to which their behavior irritates others. Or, they may think of griping as no big deal — something all humans do, just some more than others.

Hold a private conversation on the matter. Avoid personality labels, which sound inherent and tough to alter. Rather, stick with factual observations and outcomes. (“When you told your colleagues their presentation was doomed to fail, their body language changed, and they did not go into the meeting at top confidence level.”) With any luck, a lightbulb will go on. The offender genuinely may make an effort to change.

A private conversation also may reveal information about the individual’s personal life. Perhaps something is going on outside of the office that is taking a toll on their outlook. If so, you may be able to reduce some of the stress through lowering workload, offering scheduling flexibility, or allowing work-from-home opportunities. You also can direct the worker to appropriate resources such as your organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or mental health services.

Negative people are often lonely, burned out, or unhappy with themselves. If you get the sense of such problematic feelings, express concern for well-being. Encourage exercise, pursuing hobbies, relaxation, healthy eating, and meditation. The afflicted may appreciate your interest in helping them feel better, and more self-care may ultimately lead to less negativity.

Don’t forget to determine if there are any workplace issues impacting their attitude. While a person may have a more negative disposition generally, stressful working conditions may exacerbate the problem.

Take formal action

Unfortunately, the negative employee may dismiss the whole conversation. If the person does not take the discussion seriously or fails to improve, step matters up a notch. Follow your company’s disciplinary procedures as you would for any offense. Receiving an official verbal and/or written warning demonstrates management isn’t kidding. And taking the proper steps, including documentation, serves as a good foundation should harsher steps such as suspension or termination become necessary down the line.

Consider constructing a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

Sometimes, employees do not quite understand what needs to change. Developing a PIP makes things clearer. Oftentimes following guidelines set forth by human resources, this document addresses what specific actions a worker needs to do to rectify the situation. It involves metrics that clearly define what reaching standards looks like and sets a time frame for completing the conditions of the improvement process. A PIP also outlines how the company/manager will help in reaching goals, such as conducting regular check-ins to offer constructive feedback.

Offer training

Companies routinely require professional development to improve hard skills, but remember that soft skills can be taught, too. Consider offering classes on raising emotional intelligence. Participants become more aware of their own attitudes and how their mindset affects those around them. They also learn how to better read social cues, diffuse conflict, and act with empathy.

Provide outlets to voice opinions

Negative Nellie might actually have some valid concerns, so give her non-toxic ways to express them. Seek input through surveys, a suggestion box, and town hall-style meetings. Perhaps invite her in for a chat now and then to listen to her thoughts. Encourage focusing on solutions rather than simply spouting off a laundry list of complaints. Being heard and then tasked with how to make things better may redirect energy towards positive outcomes.

You may even want to ask the person directly, “What would increase your job satisfaction?” She may be genuinely touched by your concern for her well-being. Act on what you learn. A few alterations in the job description could lead to a better attitude. If possible, make these changes contingent on displaying a more positive outlook. For instance, if she would like to contribute more to the company’s social media page, she needs to first prove she possesses the cheerfulness necessary to serve as a brand ambassador.

Think ahead

Present problems or changes carefully when you have a known naysayer on staff. You might want to preface difficult conversations to encourage an open mind and to keep people from jumping in before you’ve had a chance to convey information fully.

Say, for instance, the tech department is upping security measures throughout the company. It will involve more multi-factor authentication. Looking at the change from the staff’s point of view, they are bound to point out how this new procedure will be a hassle. Calmly start your conveyance of the news with an introduction such as, “Today, we are going to go over new login procedures designed to enhance customer privacy. Please let me present this information in full so that we all can see how these changes may prove beneficial. Then, we can discuss any concerns.”

Examine your own behavior

Employees take cues from their leaders. If you routinely sing a negative song, others may naturally join the chorus. Make an effort to point out positives and view challenges as growth opportunities.

Similarly, watch that you are not encouraging negative behavior by giving whiners too much attention. Listening too long to rants provides the attention the voicer craves. Use your words and body language to convey that you want no part of such nonsense, and move on. Give your valuable attention to people who are contributing to improving the company and its culture.

Call on everyone to improve the work environment

Finally, remember that a company culture in which the majority of people maintain a pleasant, can-do attitude makes those who do not stick out like a sore thumb. Cheerlead for all on staff to improve the atmosphere, and brainstorm on how to accomplish it. Being around positivity may naturally make Grumpy Gus less pessimistic. Or at least without a crowd of gloomy colleagues ready to take his side, he may think twice about opening his mouth to rain on everyone’s parade.