How to Manage a Relentlessly Negative Employee

Oct 1, 2013
6 Min Read

A reader asks: 

I have an employee who is very negative. For instance, when other departments make mistakes, she becomes intensely frustrated and immediately accuses them of not doing their jobs. She also keeps score; if we need to do something extra to help another department, she asks why we should help them when they can't do X,Y,Z. And she speaks negatively about other departments to her own employees, and isn’t helpful to me in trying to improve things because she's so focused on being angry.

She isn't wrong when she complains about the failings of other departments. But they aren't being malicious, it's just a struggle to find common ground because we all have different needs. I feel like that's a pretty common theme at work and I need her to tone down the negative a little.

Normally I'd talk specifics, I'd tell her how I need her to behave, I'd try to help her work through the process problems causing the errors, and I'd set up consequences for bad behavior. Thing is, there is no ultimate consequence because she's not going to be let go. I can't even begin to describe the dysfunction related to this, but it's a fact, at least for now. Despite this, I have to speak to her about the problem, because I can't do nothing. But she's so buried in negativity that I don't think she's even capable of being objective anymore. Is there a way to talk to an employee like this?

Well, here’s the thing: You can try all sorts of strategies with her, but at the end of it all, you need to have the authority to set and enforce consequences. And if you don’t have that, you at least need her to think that you do. You haven’t explained why that’s not possible here, but without that authority, you can’t do your job, and whoever has put you in that position is cutting you off at the knees.

That said, you can try talking to her and see what happens. Try this:

* Be clear about your expectations and how she is falling short of them. Explain that the complaining has gotten out of hand, and that you need the person in her role to get along well with and be helpful to other departments and to minimize drama, not create it. And state clearly that the complaining needs to be dramatically scaled back (if not stopped completely) and replaced with a more helpful and accommodating approach to work and to her colleagues. Be sure to add that complaining to her own staff is 100% unacceptable -- and so far afield from what a manager should do that she’s jeopardizing your confidence in her ability to manage.

* Be clear that the concern is a serious one. Your words and your tone should convey that this is a serious problem that will damage her career if it’s not fixed.

* Be clear that fixing this is a job requirement. Present this as a performance issue like anything else; it is part of her job to be pleasant and helpful to others, whether she’s feeling pleasant or not – and choosing not to is no more acceptable than deciding she’s not going to do some other crucial part of her job.

* Talk about consequences. I know you can’t let her go, but you should certainly be able to tell her that these issues will impact your assessment of her  performance (and thus her formal evaluation), her potential for raises, the types of assignments she gets, and her reputation in and outside the company.

But at the end of the day, if she doesn’t respond to this, you’ll need to talk to whoever is standing in the way of you letting her go. You need to explain the damage she’s causing – particularly to her own staff members, who are surely being impacted by this – and the opportunity cost of keeping her in the role without significant improvement.



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