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How to discipline an employee with a bad attitude

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A bad attitude can be contagious. According to National Geographic, our moods can infect others, and bad moods may spread more easily than good moods. For employers, this means that ignoring a bad attitude may just allow it to get worse and spread. If you have an employee who’s causing problems, it’s important to address the issue – without making the problem worse.

Bad Attitudes Come in Many Forms

When you imagine workers with good attitudes, you probably imagine people who are reliable, friendly and eager to deliver their best work. Of course, everyone might have an off day from time to time, but it’s generally pretty easy to identify a worker with a good attitude.

Bad attitudes can show more variety. Some workers might be lazy. Others might complain about everything. Some might harass or bully other their coworkers, or they might talk about their coworkers behind their backs and spread rumors.

How Bad Attitudes Cause a Domino Affect

Imagine you have a worker. Let’s call him Ken. Ken is very lazy. It’s not just that he comes in late and leaves early – although he definitely does that. It’s also that he doesn’t put in much work when he is present. Most of the time, he’ll be playing on his phone or chatting with a friend. His coworkers end up picking up the slack, and they’re not happy about it. In fact, they’re getting more and more resentful. If Ken gets away with not doing any work, why should they put in so much effort? Over time, everyone’s productivity declines.

That’s just one way a bad attitude can spread. You might have other employees who go out of their way to find the negative in everything. They complain about everything, and it begins to bring the workplace morale down. Even your customers and clients seem to pick up on the bad mood. On days when a grump isn’t present, you notice that the atmosphere is much better.

Employees who harass their coworkers may cause even bigger problems, especially if the negative comments could be linked to race, sexual orientation, gender or another protected class.

According to the EEOC, petty slights, annoyances and most isolated incidents will not meet the legal requirement of harassment. However, if the actions create a work environment that is intimidating, hostile or offensive to reasonable people, it can be considered unlawful. Additionally, the employer can be held liable for harassment from coworkers, independent contractors or even customers on the premises if the employer knew about or should have known about the harassment but didn’t respond promptly with corrective action.

Even if the other employees don’t sue, they might quit. According to Business Insider, a survey found that 95 percent of workers are thinking about quitting. You don’t need to give your best workers another reason to leave.

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Disciplining Bad Attitudes

If you let a bad attitude go unchecked, it could bring down morale, negatively impact productivity, cause good workers to quit or even result in a lawsuit. To avoid that, you need to nip the behavior in the bud. Unfortunately, doing this isn’t always easy. Some people respond well to feedback, but people with bad attitudes often don’t – that’s part of having a bad attitude. Additionally, because you’re criticizing their behavior, they may take it personally. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything. It just means you need to proceed carefully.

Document Specific Behaviors

A “bad attitude” is pretty vague. It can also be subjective. If you’re having problems with an employee, note specific behaviors that are causing problems. For example, if the problem is laziness, document particular examples of when you caught the employee slacking off or when the employee failed to get work done. If the problem is that the employee complains excessively or shows a lack of respect, document specific comments. Be as specific as possible, noting the date and any other relevant details, and try to stick to factual information. Also record any complaints from other employees. This will help you when you confront the employee. It will also provide important documentation in case the situation progresses.

Discuss the Behavior and Why It’s a Problem

When you discuss the behavioral problems with the employee, do so in private. Strike the right tone. You want to be firm, but you don’t want to sound condescending or aggressive. Without attacking the employee, explain the issues you’ve observed and why these issues are a problem. If possible, point to specific policies in the employee handbook that are being violated by the behavior in question. The goal at this point is improvement. Explain exactly what you want to change so that the employee knows what it is expected. Document your conversation, the employee’s response and the plan of action.

Try to Get to the Root of the Problem

It’s possible that there’s a reason behind the employee’s bad attitude. Is the workload too heavy? Or is there not enough work? Does the employee feel that he or she is not being adequately compensated? Are other employees creating a hostile environment? Take time to listen to your employee. It may be that everyone is unhappy, but the employee with the bad attitude is the only one who’s vocal about it.

Also consider that the problem might be you. According to HR Dive, three out of four employees surveyed said that their managers had “glaring flaws.” These flaws could include things like being unfair and not listening.

Take Disciplinary Action

Depending on the frequency and severity of the behavior, disciplinary action may be needed. This could include a formal writeup or suspension. Depending on the issue, you may also require the employee to undergo sensitivity training.

When deciding on a disciplinary action, follow company policy and be consistent. If you punish one employee but not another for the same behavior, you could open yourself up to claims of discrimination.

Consider Termination

In some cases, termination may be the best course of outcome. Make sure you’ve documented the issue, including any warnings and disciplinary action, thoroughly. This post has more details on how to terminate an employee. At Higginbotham, we provide comprehensive and professional HR guidance and services. 

Not sure where to start? Talk to someone who wants to listen.

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