Dealing with unpopular employees

Send them packing

Here’s a recent question from CNN Money:

One of my employees is pretty capable, but she lacks people skills. No one in the office likes dealing with her. Recently she called me at home at 9 P.M. on a Friday, crying and saying she was typing up her résumé because the entire staff was against her.

I listened, and then hinted that it wasn’t the time or place to discuss this. Now office tension is high. Can I tell this woman that, because she said she was updating her résumé, I assume she’s given notice?
(source)

That’s a good question but here’s an even better one: if that employee’s behavior is so bad and her social skills so atrocious, why hasn’t the manager reacted a long time ago? This is one of the most important things we have managers for – to make sure that counter-productive behavior in the workplaces is stopped.

I read an interesting quote the other day (though I’ve forgotten where) that said that any behavior by employees that is not stopped by management becomes de facto legal.

Bad behavior includes gossiping, badmouthing co-workers, constant negativity, unconstructive criticisms, bullying, not helping co-workers and not sharing information. If managers see this and do nothing – it’s now OK.

And it shouldn’t be!

One manager from a company I’ve worked with, took this responsibility seriously. One of his employees, a lady in her 50s who’s been with the company for many years, had become habitually negative.

She’d end most phone calls by slamming down the receiver and blurting “Idiot!” whether she’d been talking to a customer or a co-worker. She would criticize all suggestions and plans she was consulted on. Co-workers respected her knowledge and competence but didn’t dare ask her any questions because of her demeanor.

Finally the manager had a meeting with her. He explained exactly how he viewed her behavior and why it was making him and her co-workers unhappy at work. He then gave her the rest of the day off.

When she called in sick the next day, he was pretty sure he was going to lose that employee. She returned to work the day after and asked for a meeting with him. And this is when she amazed him.

She’d spent some time thinking about this and talking to her husband – and she’d come to agree that her behavior had become much too negative. The scary thing is that she hadn’t done any of this consciously – it had become a habit. One she now wanted to break.

She’s been working on it since and both the manager and her co-worker have noticed a marked shift in her behavior. So, by the way, has her husband.

This is exactly how managers should handle this type of situation. Employees who exhibit this type of bad behavior need attention and help to break out of it. If their behavior improves – excellent. Then it’s time to follow up and make sure the change is lasting. If it doesn’t help, then it’s time to fire that person.

Letting people stay in jobs where they don’t fit in, where they’re not happy and where they’re not pulling their weight is a mistake. Managers may think they’re doing them a favor… they’re not!

Remember, just one unhappy, unproductive employee can pull down the whole department. And what’s worse – this attitude is contagious. It spreads and infects others and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a hard-core little clique of dissatisfied, cynical employees who make everyone around them unhappy.

Your take

What do you think? Have you seen a manager take responsibility and address bad behavior in employees? Have you seen this behavior ignored and be allowed to spread?

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20 thoughts on “Dealing with unpopular employees”

  1. Alex – great post! One question though – what do you do when it is the leaders of your department exhibiting constant negative and inappropriate behavior, that brings the whole team down, and isolates the department from the rest of the company?

    Obviously, this is making myself and my co-workers unhappy in our work, and we’re seeking new opportunities, but is there anything to be done in the meantime?

    This could be a great workplace, if our leaders understood their behavior’s consequences. Sadly, going to HR is not an option…the team in place before us did that, and all were fired/forced out by even worse boss behavior.

  2. Ah, yes. It’s amazing how doing the right thing works!

    @Jenn S. This is tricky. I’d be the first to say it is very difficult to resolve these situations when you are dealing with some who is willing to use force against you and when you perceive the authority system as un-supportive. I’ll be interested in hearing the views and experiences of others.

    Unless there is a strong reason to be in that place, you might be best served going elsewhere.

    Having said that, let’s assume you cherish your organization and what it stands for. Would playing “what if” for a moment help? What if someone approached the boss (maybe someone who is leaving anyway and hasn’t resigned yet) and gently and supportively asked for change?

    What if someone leaving approached the boss’ boss with resignation letter in hand and then gently and supportively asked for change?

    And what other what if’s are there?

    Do have a good weekend!

  3. You’ll have an ebb and flow of people who are liked or disliked, but when you have one person who is universally detested by everyone but those people who don’t have to work with them – then get them packing! They are the problem, hands down.

  4. Oh, Alex.

    I have a staff member who has been with us about six months. She and the rest of my staff are all civil service employees. The rest are great, but this one exhibits many signs of Paranoid Personality Disorder. She interprets neutral behaviors as hostile and responds to that perceived hostility with her own hostility. She frequently threatens filing a grievance with her union because she is “clearly and blatently being singled out.” This is all in her own mind.

    She has been given feedback about her attitude from two levels of management and from the H.R. department. She has been told that she needs to get along with her coworkers and let go of her harsh criticisms of them.

    Meanwhile, she turns out a perfect product almost all the time. She is extremely detail-oriented. She is professional in appearance. Her attendance and punctuality are impeccable.

    We are attempting to start a progressive discipline process with her, but H.R. laws are making it more and more difficult to separate an employee like this, especially since her objective work performance tends to be above reproach. Of course she makes mistakes, but rarely anything worse than anyone else might do. She just responds with great aggitation when corrected and even greater aggitation when confronted by others’ errors.

    Now I think I understand why hell and chains have such a close relationship!

  5. Great post! And I’ve been where Jenn S. has been; a manager whose behaviour is bad, a situation made worse because it encouraged other staff to behave badly. We figured out a way to reform the complainers, but it took time and a lot of effort. As for the manager, only the board could deal with him and they wouldn’t. It’s one of the reasons I’m not there today.

  6. Goes without saying that the unpopular person in the room may be the most uncomfortable. Do them a favor with integrity and honest. There is a fit for everyone, just not here “anymore”. “Anymore” refers to the assumption a solid recruiting process and communication of the culture brand is in place.

    It is amazing to see how positive this kind of change reflect on everyone and contributes to trust in leadership.

  7. I’ve seen upper management keep a lazy employee around because they liked him personally. It killed the morale of the whole team. It still shocks me to think that nothing was done. The lousy manager actually left for another job and it looked like fifty pound weights were lifted off his entire staff. They smiled, held their head up and actually took better care of the customer.

    I took notes on the whole situation and intend on writing a blog post about it in the near future.

  8. I think you and Bob Sutton have explored this at length: productivity or good work quality does not outweigh the negative effects of keeping around a person who is a negative drag on those around them.

    The sad part is that people still find themselves in positions where they see this occur and managers are still questioning whether its worth it to keep these people around.

  9. Every worker dislikes what she is doing sooner or later. Have you read waitterant.com or http://www.philalawyer.net? Every job becomes that same old thing, day after day after a while. How do you solve that? Nobody can solve it is my suspicion.

  10. Ah yes, great. My biggest leadership mistake was continuing for months to try to find a successful role for an employee who brought down (and slowed down) the people around him. This was a major lesson-learned for me: Firing him increased team productivity AND happiness. And, he landed in a better situation, where he’s now a happy camper. I was afraid to fire him because I thought he’d be crushed. Turns out, he was relieved and grateful. And everyone involved was better off.

  11. Alex, I very much appreciate your article. You cited several behaviors related to jerkdom: gossiping, badmouthing co-workers, constant negativity, unconstructive criticisms, bullying, not helping co-workers and not sharing information.

    My own research indicates that as many as 1 in 20 employees exhibit these behaviors. This behavior is related to certain attitudes such as vindictiveness, entitlement, being judgemental or adversarial. These attitudes, when they are held in the extreme are related to disruptive workplace behavior. Fortunately they can be measured before someone is hired.

    No one should have to put up with workplace abuse.

    Dale Paulson, Ph.D.
    http://www.workplaceattitudes.blogspot.com

  12. I used to work in a lovely relaxed workplace… one day I was late back from lunch and my boss said, “Don’t worry – we don’t clock-watch here” and when he found me working late that night to make the time up, he shooed me out.

    Unfortunately that kindness was taken advantage of by a colleague who would come in late, leave early, and take sick leave if she had to take her cat to the vet.

    Instead of taking this one lady on one side and telling her kindly but firmly to pull her socks up, the bosses sent round a memo to all of us – tightening the rules.

    The lovely relaxed atmosphere went down the tubes. People were unhappy and the office became a toxic place instead of a happy one.

    The lazy team member eventually left – but the damage had been done.

    Moral – nip staff problems in the bud early and make sure you address the troublemaker direct – don’t splatter the rest of the team with mud!

    M

  13. “One of my employees is pretty capable, but she lacks people skills. No one in the office likes dealing with her. Recently she called me at home at 9 P.M. on a Friday, crying and saying she was typing up her r

  14. I turned down a Plant Manager(1) position, to continue working as a manager in my department. Another employee (2) was moved up to also be a manager in another department. As I worked my butt off every day i noticed 1 and 2 hiring others and overspending to cover all problems and not really doing much of anything but overspend. After 7 years, i was forced into the plant manager position and inherited #2 (1 was moved to another location)..tried working with him to get back to working etc. but ended up on the floor myself with his employees. After confronting him one last time after 10 months, he went to owner and quit because he said i’m a terrible manager (even after saving the company over a million in the 10 months) He totally refuses to work with me or anyone else for that matter. Owner let him go..he is now seeking legal help and wanting to sue the company with the help of ex-plant manager..these two were ignored for so long and now are my problem…any suggestions?

  15. I’d also like to ad that alot of the things that people write here..calling a manager abusive etc. was told to me but only by the person who refused to actually work..The lazy would point at me when I would get after them to carry their own weight and actually work to earn their money..I have no problems with any other employees

  16. my coworker thinks she can do anything under the sun. She comes in anytime she wants and leaves whenever. She has this illusion that she is favored by our manager coz he likes her and because she is pretty.

  17. I really wish that my negative employees would respond in good faith, such as in your example. Unfortunately, there has been an epidemic (there’s no other word for it) of employees who seem to imagine things, therefore cutting off all rational approaches to improving poor behavior. Like Anony, I have an employee who very likely has a disorder that distorts her perceptions. HR won’t allow me to fire people for insubordination (thus disrespectful comments, rule-breaking, and refusal to work are all de facto legal – grrrrr), so I have to concentrate on tangible things like production and quality of work. I’m doing that (her imaginary problems seem to be a profound distraction), so she won’t be around long. As with the previous two “cases”, productivity will skyrocket once she’s gone and her crazy, hostile behavior with it (no, they won’t let me fire her for swearing and yelling and openly defying work rules).

    I bring this up, because “bad faith” is a new problem for me. In my decades-long career as a manager, coaching (always positive and supportive) has always resulted in improvement. Now I feel terrified that the next employee to be coached will also be…uh…hearing voices, shall we say…and make things hellish for his/her co-workers. I know it’s not my job to diagnose, but what can you do about people who really have something wrong with them and HR won’t support you?

    To make things worse, all three of my problem employees (two are gone now) were FIRED from their previous jobs. I would have never hired someone with a history of not getting along in their workplaces. Again, HR really failed me here.

  18. I worked as a data-entry person at a publishing company’s Customer Service department for sixteen years. Most of my years were really good ones, but during my last few years there, a new supervisor was brought in to reflect certain changes that were going on within the company. This woman became rather overzealous, micromanaging, harassing and bullying all six of those of us permanent employees who were left in our department, after a hiring freeze was done and no permanent employees were hired in our department to replace those who left.

    Three out of the six people, including myself, ended up filing grievances against this woman, and we all ended up leaving the press. Afew years later, the whole Customer Service department and Accounts Receivable department, were outsourced, and even our overly zealous supervisor was laid off, as well. Karma came to her, at last. Aha.

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