How to counsel employees with attitude problems

With some employees, the problem isn’t a matter of ability, it’s a matter of attitude. This can manifest itself in everything from quiet disobedience to outright insubordination.

How should you respond? Rather than becoming entangled in a debate about the employee’s dysfunctional attitude, address the situation strictly as a behavioral problem. That way, it’s not only easier to resolve, but also a better way to make a case for dismissal.

Your first step is to document the behavior. Write down specific verbal and physical behaviors and actions that concern you, hurt team morale, damage productivity or reflect badly on the organization. Don’t forget to record nonverbal behaviors, such as rolling eyes, clenching fists and staring into space.

Narrow the issue to the precise problem. Identify exactly what type of behavior the attitude has caused. This list may help:

  • Carelessness 
  • Complaining 
  • Disruptive or explosive conduct
  • Inattention to work 
  • Insensitivity to others 
  • Insubordination 
  • Laziness 
  • Negative/cynical posture 
  • Surly/inconsiderate/rude talk 
  • Excessive socializing

Record the frequency of such misconduct, plus how it affects work flow and colleagues’ performance. List good business reasons why the behavior must end.

Meeting with the employee

When you sit down with employees to discuss attitude problems, try to determine whether they have a reason for their behavior. Is it a grudge against you or against the company in general? If you can’t get to the root of the problem, don’t think you can’t resolve it.

Describe the behaviors you won’t tolerate, and tell the employee firmly that those behaviors must stop. Too often, managers fail in their counseling efforts because they skip this (sometimes uncomfortable) step. Also, make sure the employee understands why the behavior must end. Explain how it’s causing a problem.

Also, follow up with a description of the preferred behavior, such as cooperation, helpfulness and courteousness. Don’t feel bad about being direct. Every manager has the right to demand that employees behave in a courteous and cooperative manner.

Finally, give the employee the opportunity to speak. The person may be unaware of what he or she is doing or not realize how it impedes other people’s work. It may also turn out that the attitude problem is a symptom of a more serious problem that needs referral to the employee assistance program.

Taming the shrews: 10 tips for dealing with attitudes

  1. Put problem people in perspective. Don’t take their antics personally.
  2. Go somewhere to cool off. You can’t concentrate on constructive, creative alternatives while you’re clinging to anger.
  3. Learn to respond as well as listen. Be assertive. Don’t expect an employee to read your mind. Let him or her know when you’re annoyed, upset or disappointed.
  4. Give and request frequent feedback. Don’t stew over what an employee may be thinking. Ask.
  5. Look at policies first. No matter how angry someone’s behavior makes you, don’t say or do anything until making sure you’re on safe ground.
  6. Deal directly and discreetly. Choose face-to-face talks in private to discuss an employee’s attitude or behavior.
  7. Always document. Keep a record of all communications to prevent lies or faulty recollections from taking over later.
  8. Be straightforward. The more you remain matter-of-fact, the less you encourage an employee to play games.
  9. Be gracious. Someone’s rudeness doesn’t give you the right to respond in kind.
  10. Be prepared to fail. Some people with attitude problems can’t be saved, no matter how much counseling you provide.