Dealing with a bad apple (Toughest HR Question)

5 different types of attitude problems among employees – and how to deal with them

Brian Kreissl
Question: How do you deal with an employee who has a bad attitude?

Answer: It really depends what you mean by a “bad attitude.” Just how bad is this person’s behaviour? Does she tend to be a little negative or is her behaviour downright toxic to everyone else around her, as well as the organization in general?
It is important to determine whether the person is aware of the impact of her behaviour on others. Has anyone called the person out for her behaviour?

It also depends on the culture of the organization. Do you expect everyone to more or less be “corporate cheerleaders” for the organization? While some allowance should definitely be made for an organization’s culture, such an expectation might not be reasonable and you may be missing out on valuable input and feedback.

You may also be fostering a homogeneous culture and stifling diversity and fresh thinking with such expectations. After all, not every personality type is going to fit into a “rah, rah, rah” corporate culture, and people from some cultural backgrounds may be more reserved than others.

But, assuming the person really does have a bad attitude, here’s a list of five different categories of “negative” employees and how to deal with each:

The saboteur
It is possible the employee may be actively disengaged. Actively disengaged individuals are so disillusioned with their jobs and the organization, they frequently work against the best interests of the company or even actively sabotage organizational goals and objectives (and sometimes even its systems, tools, equipment or facilities).

While there is no question employees who engage in deliberate and serious sabotage should probably be terminated (likely for cause), there are no hard and fast rules. Depending on the severity of the sabotage, it may be possible to correct such behaviour through coaching, feedback and, if necessary, disciplinary sanctions.

It is prudent to obtain legal advice before deciding to terminate such an employee. However, if the individual is downright toxic to the organization, it is likely you will have no other choice but to terminate his employment for the sake of his co-workers and the organization overall.

The realist
As mentioned, having a “bad attitude” can mean many different things — particularly in different organizational contexts. It is possible the person may not be aware she comes across negatively, and gentle coaching and feedback could result in dramatically improved behaviour.

Such people often think of themselves as “telling it like it is.” They may not realize their negativity is contagious and it is actually doing harm to the organization and themselves. However, great care must be taken not to stifle all contrary viewpoints. Otherwise, groupthink sets in and the organization could end up in serious trouble.

The naysayer
Some people like to think of themselves as playing the devil’s advocate. They may be presenting contrary viewpoints even if they don’t necessarily agree with them just to ensure people have thought of all possibilities. Such people will often say things like, “We tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work then, so I don’t think it would work now.”

Again, if the person’s behaviour is causing real problems to morale or the employee comes across as downright insubordinate, it is definitely worth attempting to work with him by providing appropriate feedback and coaching. However, playing the devil’s advocate can be a useful tool for considering all sides of a problem.

The nervous nelly
In many cases, it is important to listen to so-called negative people and deal with their concerns. This is particularly important in a change management context where it is vital to conduct a proper stakeholder analysis to determine what’s causing the resistance to change.

In many ways, people who are vocal about their resistance to organizational change may simply be voicing many of the same concerns others have but are afraid to bring forward. And someone who expresses negative feelings about change could be voicing valid concerns the organization hadn’t thought of.

Concerns based on misconceptions or unfounded fears also need to be brought out into the open and dealt with through reassurance and appropriate communications. And concerns relating to organizational change need to be uncovered through dialogue, stakeholder analysis, effective communications and appropriate change management interventions.

The former star
Great care must be taken to ensure top performers remain engaged. It is relatively easy for them to become disengaged — particularly when they are no longer challenged by the organization. Managers need to intervene as soon as a high performer exhibits a sudden change in behaviour.

Top performers really need to be challenged. But managers in particular need to ensure these employees continue to do their best work and don’t burn themselves out. 

While “A” players typically put forward a great deal of discretionary effort, there needs to be something in it for them. Otherwise, they won’t always be top performers.

Rewards and recognition are important, although rewarding people solely through money may not motivate them. Yet, if compensation and benefits aren’t internally equitable and externally competitive, that can lead to dissatisfaction and turnover — especially among top performers who are well aware of their value in the external marketplace.

Awards of excellence, plaques, gifts, celebrations and extra perks such as an additional day off can help to show top performers their efforts are appreciated.

Even an email message from an executive or recognition from a supervisor for a job well done can help motivate and engage such employees.

By engaging a top performer, hopefully the organization can deal with his attitude problem. However, coaching and feedback might also be necessary and, even if he achieves fantastic results, termination may be necessary if the individual has become disillusioned with the organization and is actively disengaged and causing problems among colleagues. 

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Carswell’s human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions in Toronto. For more information, visit

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