No business environment, no matter how positive, can escape the occasional bout of negativity. Whether it’s an employee expressing disagreement about a new policy, an intern complaining about the lack of good coffee in the office kitchen, or a group of coworkers frustrated with the latest operating system, negative attitudes can affect how people interact—and most importantly, their productivity. HR has an important role to play in mitigating negativity in the workplace and preventing it from infecting the entire company.
Where does workplace negativity come from? According to Gary S. Topchik, author of Managing Workplace Negativity, negativity “is often the result of a loss of confidence, control, or community.” When employees feel that they’ve lost something—a say in company decisions, the opportunity for a promotion or raise, or self confidence after a manager has put them down—their attitude is likely to turn negative very quickly. HR professionals would do well to keep their eyes and ears open for these kinds of situations.
One of the most common causes of workplace negativity stems from employees feeling that important decisions are being made without their input or any consideration of the implications on their work or lives. A company can’t possibly operate smoothly if it has to consider the feelings and opinions of every single employee for every decision to be made, but nonetheless it is important to make people feel that they do have a say, and that their opinions matter.
Another cause of negativity is the way promotions and raises are handled. Some employees may feel unhappy about being passed up for a promotion, or if someone they deem to be less productive gets a raise. Communication is key in these situations. You need to have clear policies in place about how promotions occur, and transparent review processes that employees fully understand and that delineate a career path they can shoot for.
Looking into the causes of workplace negativity wouldn’t be complete without considering one more source: the rumor mill. Nothing causes—and spreads—workplace negativity faster than rumors. Although they are usually started by an employee who misunderstands or reads into a situation, rumors must be taken seriously and quickly diffused by HR professionals. Never let rumors “run their course” or die on their own. If you catch wind of a rumor, stop it in its tracks. If it’s false, set the record straight. If it’s true, confer with your department heads and other relevant managers to figure out a straightforward and truthful way to officially share the information.
Here are a few tips on how to prevent workplace negativity before it starts: