How to handle an employee with a bad attitude

One HR educator offers advice on handling workers with a chip on their shoulder.

How to handle an employee with a bad attitude
We’ve all seen it, that one employee with the bad attitude that makes life for everyone around them difficult. They’re usually the ones with a constant scowl on their face and general air of discontentment about them. The trouble is, they’re an integral part of a team and as much as they stress out those around them, they’re good at their job and the team needs them. But every so often they cross the line with something they say, whether it’s a snappy comment to a coworker or a sarcastically worded e-mail and HR gets called in to moderate a dispute.
Sound familiar? Well if it does it’s because you might have been there before. But if you haven’t, experience really is the best teacher. Dealing with bad attitudes in the workplace is one of those ‘nip it in the bud before it gets bigger’ situations which if done correctly can have a really positive effect on not only team performance but company performance as well. Because if a team is firing on all cylinders (no HR pun intended) then deliverables are being sent out and deadlines are met on time. And if they’re not, productivity suffers.
“The first thing to remember is that most of the time, an employee with a bad attitude may not be aware that they have one,” says Yanny Yeung, HR consultant and online HR instructor at Ashton College. “They might simply say ‘this is the way I am’ without realizing how unproductive that attitude really is.” The difficulties for an HR manager faced with this type of situation is in communicating to that employee how their behaviour affects those around them but doing so without triggering an outburst or offending their sensibilities. It’s entirely possible that they might have problems on the homefront that are spilling over and affecting their work-life balance and these are factors that HR needs to take into account.
“Quite often, managers are afraid to approach the employee because they think the behaviour isn’t something that can be fixed with constructive criticism. It’s really important for HR to rectify that,” says Yeung. “Effective communication at this stage is crucial.” But there are times when straight forward communication isn’t enough and if things arrive at this stage, a viable solution can be found in an employee improvement plan.
Employee improvement plans are an effective way to manage behaviour and minimize emotional fallout. A well drafted plan can include a set of behavioural goals for an employee to meet during the week such as minimizing negative comments about their work or refraining from using a negative tone in e-mails. “The plan should be drafted alongside of a discussion with management” says Yeung. “It’s important to be concrete.” By putting the situation on paper it in effect ‘realizes’ the behaviour and enables the employee to take ownership of it. This is a huge step in transforming negative behaviour into positive results because by creating behavioural ‘deliverables’ for the employee to meet, the plan becomes part of their day to day scheduled tasks.  
Once the plan has been drafted and put into effect it’s important to regularly schedule performance evaluation meetings between HR, management, and the employee. This allows the timeline detailed in the plan to be monitored. Once the deliverables are met, the employee can sign off on the ‘product’ of the plan, in this case meeting behaviour expectations. And an added benefit of this is that by transforming their own behaviour, the behaviour of those around them also improves.
In a sense, an employee improvement plan isn’t a whole lot different from a project proposal but with HR, it’s a human project. And as HR professionals, it’s that human touch that makes what you do worthwhile. Negative employee behaviour isn’t anything that can’t be solved with a dialogue and a solid plan of action.
Ashton College is accredited post-secondary institution offering flexible education options for working professionals including a Diploma in Human Resources Management and a variety of professional development seminars.
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