Technically, your bad attitude employees may not be your duds.  For example, in my last column, I discussed some of the characteristics that make your superstar employees hard to handle.  But whether your bad attitude employee is a star or a dud makes no difference to your workplace in the long run.  Employees with bad attitudes are downers – sucking the morale out of their co-workers and giving you an ulcer.  So, how do you rid your workplace of the bad attitude yet still minimizing the legal risks involved?  It takes time and documentation.

To start with, you have to identify your bad attitude employees, and that’s usually not the difficult part.  They roll their eyes at your comments, test the boundaries of your rules, and walk all over their co-workers.  Of course, telling someone they have a bad attitude is not going to solve anything, but how do you document something as subjective as a bad attitude?

Step one is focusing on behaviors.  Document specific examples (date, circumstances, those present) of the behavior and how it impacted your business.  Look at your policies to see if the behavior is in violation of expected workplace demeanor.  Eye-rolling and under-the-breath comments may be insubordination.  Mistreatment of co-workers may violate rules on acting professionally in the workplace.  Document a few examples to address with the employee.

Most employers invest a lot of time and money into their employees, so discharge is not the first route most folks want to take.  It’s not a good starting place most of the time anyway, because employees should feel that they are treated fairly.  All of this means you need to give your bad attitude employee a chance to make things right.  Some people are just sour, and those are the ones who won’t be able to make the changes and who may need to be let go.  Others might have reasons for the attitude – reasons that can be fixed.  That makes step two talking to your employee.

Now, sitting down with an employee to discuss his or her bad attitude is not an easy conversation, so stay calm and professional throughout the exchange.  Have another person (supervisor or HR) in the meeting.  Present the factual behaviors, their impact on the job, how they violate company policy, and ask what the employee needs from you to help fix the situation.  Then, listen.  Perhaps they’re overwhelmed by their workload.  Maybe they haven’t been given clear direction by their supervisor.  There are many causes – external and internal to the workplace – which could impact employee attitude.  It may be something you need to address with another employee.  The only way you’ll find out is by listening.

The next step is to work with the employee to develop a plan for addressing and correcting the behaviors.  Document a plan of action with consequences for failing to meet goals.  Have the employee sign off both on the specific examples you provided in the meeting, as well as the performance plan.  Encourage the employee by citing to examples of the things he or she does well, and offer to provide support if they need additional help.  Then, follow-up in the time-frame you’ve selected to see if progress has been made.

If the employee hasn’t improved significantly, it’s time to consider discharge.  While you can’t stop an employee from bringing a wrongful discharge claim, the documentation you’ve generated giving the employee a chance to fix the problem goes a long way toward defending these claims.

Throughout all of this, make sure you’re following your workplace policies, complying with any employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements, and treating employees consistently.  Do not discharge a bad attitude employee for behavior you let other employees get away with because others do it with a smile.  Consistency and fairness are concepts we learned from the playground, and they live on not just in the workplace, but in the courtroom.

What are your views on handling employees with bad attitudes?  We’d love to hear them.

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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