Earning Employee Excellence ®
BAD ATTITUDES/PROBLEM BEHAVIOR
In my 30+ years of dealing with troubled and troublesome people, "bad attitude" is the most common label. Problems can range from annoying
to dangerous. However, saying an employee has a bad attitude is like saying a person is poorly motivated. We think we know what that means.
But, the label doesn't tell us what specific behavior needs to be corrected. Employee's thinking and feelings (attitudes) are invisible to us. We
can only infer them from the employee's behavior. Attitudes can't be managed; only behavior can. To be effective, fair and legal, focus on the
Also, telling someone s/he has a "bad attitude" inevitably triggers a defensive --and probably hurt and angry -- response. This results in a
nasty emotional debate ("I do not; you do too") rather than positive problem-solving. Focusing on behavior (hard evidence) can help avoid
getting stuck in a stalemate on the corner of Name-Calling & Denial Streets.
This article describes bad attitudes/problem behavior. For help resolving it, see Dealing with Problem Behavior
Definition of Problem Behavior -- Behavior that is potentially or actually harmful to the organization or others. "Harmful behavior" can range
from poor hygiene to chronic complaining to being disruptive to offensive, illegal, or life-threatening actions. If target performance for job
conduct has been established, it is probably not being achieved. Management is obligated to intervene to maintain the productivity, safety or
well-being of employees. It could be a single, significant incident or a continuing/worsening pattern.
Note: Off the job, an employee may show alarming beliefs and questionable actions about people or things. It can be risky to address this
behavior at work unless it shows up at work. On the other hand, not acting may subject you to being accused of ignoring an obvious threat. If
you are significantly concerned about off-the-job behavior and people's well-being, consult an Employment Law attorney. Or, in an emergency,
call the police or 911.
Common Employee Problem Behavior --
- Poor work quality or quantity in job descriptions and assigned work
- Poor job conduct such as
- Absenteeism, tardiness, leaves early
- Not following rules, policies, procedures, guidelines, agreements
- Not cooperative; is argumentative, rebellious, insubordinate, rigid
- Defensive, overly-sensitive, overly-reactive, excuse-making
- Confrontational, controlling, bossy, bullying
- Rude, insensitive, abrasive, insulting, demeaning, derogatory, sarcastic
- Disparages the organization at work. If it is away from work, such as social networking (Face Book, Twitter, etc.), it gets into First
Amendment issues. If concerned, discuss it with an attorney or other expert
- Passive-aggressive with “malicious compliance; ” i.e., barely meets expectations while making it clear they are unhappy and
making life difficult for others
- Foments dissatisfaction among employees; is negative regarding just about everything and encourages others to be negative
- Tantrums, pouting when not getting their own way
- Gossips, spreads rumors and innuendo
- Avoids work, pawns work off on others, grudgingly accepts work
- Arrogant, self-centered, overly-confident, Prima Donas
- Chronically seeks attention (to feel special or needed), or seeks support or affirmation (emotional or otherwise)
The list goes on. Don't get hung up on diagnosing the employee's personal history or personal reasons for showing negative behavior. You
are (probably) not a psychologist or psychiatrist. Even if you are, as the boss you may be too close to the situation to be objective. Such
diagnostic speculation does no good and can get you into trouble.
Focus on identifying and resolving the problem behavior.
It's easy, especially when frustrated and angry, to label an employee as having a bad attitude. However, sometimes an employee's reasons
are understandable and work-related, though their actions are not acceptable. For example, employees may
- be given work or work loads they are not prepared for or incapable of doing
- be mistreated, harassed or discriminated against
- be smart perfectionists who constantly seek better ways. "Know-it-alls" sometimes are right
- have legitimate work complaints, such as safety. Many whistle blowers who later become heroes were at one time labeled as having a
- have reasonable (at least to them) professional or technical differences of opinion
People usually think their behavior is justified, whether others agree or not. Carefully investigate if a "problem employee" has legitimate, work-
related reasons for negative behavior. Sometimes good employees are in bad situations that bring out their worse. Usually, they don't want to
be problem employees.
If not work-related causes, the employee may be suffering serious personal problems such as substance abuse, mental health, family/marital
conflict, medical, or finances. Problem behavior on the job should be addressed. But, the personal problem itself may have legal protections
from retaliation or discipline, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act. Focus on resolving the problem behavior.
Most employees, including your best (and you), probably show some negative behavior at times. Everyone has the occasional bad day. People
make comments they regret. Still, chronic, low-level problem behavior can be like a cancer; starting small, growing quickly and infecting other
parts of the organization. Be aware and monitor it. If concerned enough, respond quickly and effectively with feedback, coaching or
appropriate warnings/discipline. Plus, there are employees who should not have been hired. They were problems on previous jobs and
probably will be on future ones. They show continued patterns of problem behavior, not minor, isolated incidents.
Multiple surveys over many years at many different organizations show that about 5% of people dislike any work and will do mediocre or poor
work if they can get away with it (The Enthusiastic Employee; Sirota, Mischkind and Meltzer; 2005). Done properly, you can minimize or avoid
hiring them. If you already have these people, terminate their employment quickly and effectively. You probably don’t have the time or
resources for the damage they do or to "fix" these folks. If you have more than 5% of these employees, ask yourself what you’re doing wrong. If
you have not had employees like this, your performance management is exemplary -- or, you are very lucky.
Problematic behavior can be in the eye of the beholder (i.e., highly subjective). A pattern of behavior might not negatively affect the
organization’s performance though it is unusual, eccentric (wild hair, multiple skin piercings or tattoos), or even a bit annoying to some. An
employee may tell very funny, scathing jokes about management that employees laugh at but that ridicule leaders and diminishes their
credibility. An employee who does excellent, even vital, work may show offensive behavior. How to respond can be tough calls and depends
upon your knowledge and skills with your employees.
Another example: Being gruff and cranky may be forgivable with a highly-productive, long-time employee (“That’s just Bob being Bob”). But,the
same problem behavior may be seen as a serious problem with a marginal, new employee (“Before he becomes a worse problem, fire Sam
AND his bad behavior.”) How to weigh an employee’s long-term service and contributions (or lack thereof) against his/her problematic
behavior? The boss needs to decide. And be consistent. And fair (legal).
It can be complicated. Rather than focus on "bad-attitude" employees, focus on and resolve ANY problem behavior that could disrupt the
workplace and potentially or actually be harmful to the organization or others. One size does not fit all. Some problem behavior calls for a
gentle admonition. Some, a "whack upside the head" (serious discipline). Use Target Performance Management™ to create a workplace that
encourages commitment and allegiance, that workers defend as fair and caring, and that selects employees less likely to be unreasonable and
retaliatory. And, a workplace that sets the stage for effective corrective action, including termination of employment, when necessary.
Dealing With Problem Behavior Prevention. Identification. Resolution.
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