As HR professionals, we are tasked with making sure that employees are happy and motivated at work, that they have their needs met, and that they understand their value to the company’s mission and goals. Sometimes our role is to act as mediators and step in when problems or issues arise between employees or between an employee and the employer. This role is never easy, as we have to handle situations that are difficult and sometimes emotional.

Our job is even harder when we have to deal with intangible problems—issues that are more difficult to pinpoint and address. For instance, if an issue arises between two employees, the way to handle the situation is to speak with both parties and get to the root of the issue. On the other hand, if the problem is less tangible, like an employee who simply has a bad attitude, it becomes a little trickier to handle.

A person exhibiting a bad attitude usually exhibits bad behaviors as well, like constantly being late to work or refusing assignments. In other cases, an employee with a bad attitude might still be a good performer, getting to work on time and causing no specific problems. However, someone with a bad attitude can negatively affect the other employees, lowering morale and spreading negative energy, so it should be addressed either way. Doing so has to be done delicately and professionally.

Here are some tips on how to handle an employee with a bad attitude.

  1. Know the difference between a bad attitude and bad behavior. A bad attitude is by definition subjective. What to one person may seem like a bad attitude, to others might not even be noticeable. It’s also difficult to pinpoint a bad attitude; in and of itself, this is not enough cause to take disciplinary action. However, more often than not, the bad attitude leads to bad behaviors, which are easy to identify. An employee’s attitude alone may seem negative, but it’s important to look for the behaviors that are stemming from that attitude, like ignoring deadlines or responding rudely to clients.
  2. Document any bad behavior. Once the bad behaviors have been identified, it’s important to document them. Encourage the employee’s manager to keep a record of specific instances when the employee’s bad attitude has directly affected his work. Ask them to include as much information as possible and any supporting information, as well as the names of any other employees who were affected or witnessed the bad behavior. Once the manager presents the documentation, share it with other HR managers in your department, who can act as unbiased parties to help determine whether action is warranted.
  3. Meet in person with the employee. Set up a meeting with the employee, his manager, and another unbiased party (like another HR manager) if necessary. An uninvolved party can help defuse the situation, and his presence as a witness can help prevent any possible claims of discrimination or harassment by the employee. Approach the meeting as an opportunity to discuss the employee’s behavior from the standpoint that he wants to improve and change. Try to be impartial and get to the root of the problem, encouraging the employee to speak freely, and find ways to remedy his behavior.
  4. Develop a plan for change. After the meeting, make sure the employee leaves knowing that you and his manager are eager to help him improve his attitude and behavior. Work out a plan with both him and his manager that includes areas where he can improve and some steps to take. For instance, if the bad behavior is missing his deadlines, then work out a plan that allows him to turn in parts of the assignment at different times, or set up reminders from his manager. If after meeting and developing a plan, the employee is still exhibiting a bad attitude that negatively affects his work, it may be necessary to take disciplinary action, such as a probationary period.
  5. Never just tell them they have a bad attitude. An important thing to remember is never to just tell the employee he has a bad attitude. Confronting an employee about his attitude is too subjective, might make the situation worse, and (in a worst-case scenario) can even lead to a wrongful termination lawsuit against your company. If an employee has a bad attitude but it’s not affecting his work directly—maybe it’s just upsetting his coworkers or lowering morale—try having a private conversation to get at the root of the problem. There could be any number of reasons for his bad attitude toward work, both personal and professional, and some may be resolved through conversation.

Dealing with employees’ issues is never easy, especially when they’re as intangible and subjective as a bad attitude. Have you ever dealt with someone with a bad attitude? What steps did you take?

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Adina Miron


  • Avatar Jennifer says:

    A single employee with a bad attitude can affect the morale and motivation of an entire department. It is well known that it’s not unusual to hear malicious remarks between coworkers, but a persistently bad attitude toward coworkers is cause for concern. Solving the problem promptly helps to ensure that the bad attitude of one employee doesn’t affect the productivity and morale of the other employees.

  • Avatar Mark says:

    I have once dealt with such a situation. I had an employee that suddenly began to have a negative attitude at work and, when I noticed that, I decided to have a discussion with him and try to understand the root of the problem. Together we made some changes that could have improved the attitude, but with no results. That was why I talked to the HR department and asked them to send the employee to a specialist or a specialized program that could help him deal with his frustrations in a more appropriate way. The results were positive, and since then I have had no complaints about that employee.

  • Avatar Chris Miller says:

    Employees with a bad attitude or behavior problems can be a challenge for managers and HR. I was once in this situation, and it was really frustrating because despite all my efforts the employee’s attitude didn’t change at all. After many discussions, I could understand the source of the problem, but she didn’t want to let me help her. Unfortunately, I had to fire her because I have a small business and she was dragging all of her coworkers down.

  • Avatar K.T. Connor, PhD says:

    I’m not sure attitude is as easy to identify. By that I mean, it’s the behavior that we see, not the attitude, as the article affirms. We extrapolate a conclusion about the attitude, and are not always correct in our extrapolation, as research often shows.

    An important consideration is that the “why” of behavior is very, very important. One can, for example, observe the delay of project activity until one is dangerously close to deadline. It is easy to assume apathy, laziness, indifference, skepticism, or simply habitual procrastination. How can you tell?

    Until you measure the person’s actual thinking pattern–and you can’t necessarily measure this through self report instruments–you will miss the person’s unique reason for the behavior.

    For example, it’s possible the person is very focused on the project and is thinking through the steps to achieve it and will only act when they are confident the result is possible. Another person might have a multiple-focus and be busy generating multiple possible action options and exploring the possible impact of each. In neither case would there be apathy, quite the contrary.

    As another example, you might observe that an employee is frequently pointing out failings in others. You could assume a “bad attitude” toward others. But it could be that this person is trying to be helpful. This Is the case when the person’s thinking pattern is a trouble-shooter pattern. That kind of person has a wonderful ability to see what needs fixing and how to fix it. That’s a strength they have. When they use it the wrong way, trouble-shooting people who haven’t requested the advice, they can be assumed to dislike the person. Actually, they might like them very much and just want to help.

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