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Tips for managing 4 bad workplace behaviors

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Bad attitudes and disengaged workers, of course, are unhealthy for organizations at every level. One study by Gallup, in fact, found that actively disengaged employees cause U.S. companies between $450–$550 billion in lost productivity (2013). 

​If you manage employees, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with a coworker or employee with a bad workplace attitude. Bad attitudes and disengaged workers, of course, are unhealthy for organizations at every level. One study by Gallup, in fact, found that actively disengaged employees cause U.S. companies between $450–$550 billion in lost productivity (2013). 

Employees with bad attitudes are just as distracting to employees who are doing their jobs as they are to the people managing them. That’s why managing difficult employees is a crucial leadership skill. Here are the four most common bad behaviors in the workplace and some tips for managing the employees that bring them.

Four bad behaviors to address

1. Negativity towards the company

Employees who make snide remarks about company leaders, coworkers, or day-to-day operations are common in workplaces everywhere. Anyone who reads the comic strip Dilbert knows all about that. But these negative attitudes can be a drag on your company’s goals and damage the workplace environment.

Before you do anything else, as a manager you should ask yourself these questions first: Do you know the root causes of the employee’s negativity? Have you really listened to them? Have you reviewed your vision for the organization or your area or department? Have you shown them how their work and responsibilities are important for the organization to meet its goals?

2. Insubordinate challenges to authority

Managing employees with confrontational attitudes is especially challenging. They might refuse to perform a task just to prove a point, or they could undermine your authority by talking disparagingly about the project or you. This disrespectful behavior needs to be addressed immediately. But first …

Are you sure the behaviors you’ve identified as insubordinate aren’t simply a matter of confusion or unclear communication? Have you provided clear expectations and then followed through on consequences for actions, both positive and negative?

3. Overly argumentative or bullying

Employees who aggravate and argue with their coworkers create an uncomfortable environment, to say the least, especially if they make little effort to compromise or settle disagreements.

Employees who bully others are even more challenging. Findings from a 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 61% of U.S. workers are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace.

To help head these situations off, make sure you have clear employee standards and policies.  And ask yourself if this behavior is part of a bigger problem with the workplace culture.

4. Lazy and/or unmotivated

These are the employees who aren’t engaged in their work and spend most of their time goofing off and causing distractions. According to research from Gallup, disengaged workers had 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 60% more errors and defects. Even worse, engaged workers can become frustrated watching a coworker get away with poor workplace performance.

Tips: Have you tried to really understand what motivates these employees (it’s usually not money)? Have you discussed the tasks they do, their environment, and any changes that could be made?

The grumpy effect

Do you remember Grumpy, one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs? He was a master of the four bad attitudes. He was negative, stubborn, lazy and made a fuss about everything.

Do you work with an office “Grumpy” or an employee who walks into work with a negative or cynical attitude? If you do just know that it could turn out ok, because at the end of the fairytale Grumpy changes. Despite his initial bad attitude, he is the one who took charge and saved Snow White from the evil queen.

So before you dismiss the “Grumpys” of your office, decide if managing them can be done in a timely manner and whether the line of open and respectful communication still exists.

Finding ways to effectively manage employees with bad attitudes can save your organization the expense and hassles of hiring someone new. Did you know the average cost to replace an employee is 150 percent of the employee’s annual compensation? And those costs can reach up to 250 percent when replacing managerial or sales employees.

Solutions to try

Finding the source of a difficult employee’s negativity can help you better coach and manage their behavior. Let’s face it, we all have grumpy days, but a prolonged bad attitude usually means there’s something else going on.

Pre-hire assessments that determine a candidate’s ability to perform specific job duties can also reveal personality traits helpful for developing employees.

Assessments like Everything DiSC Management or PXT Select can help managers understand their employees at a deeper level, because they analyze thinking styles and behaviors. Reports produced by these assessments can help you choose the best ways to communicate with and develop problematic employees.

When evaluating the situation and preparing to talk with difficult employees, leaders should ask themselves these questions: 

  • How does the employee interact with coworkers?

  • Is the employee’s change in attitude recent?

  • Has the employee’s workload or responsibility changed?

  • Did something recently happen in the individual’s life that could have triggered an attitude shift?

  • Is there a culture or history of accepting poor behavior?

  • Have you contributed to the problem by neglecting to deal with behavioral issues?

  • Is there a problem not just with the employee but with an entire team the employee is on?

  • Is there a general problem with communication and communication tools?

​Once you’ve answered these questions and you feel it’s a single employee issue, you should address the employee privately and respectfully. Don’t give in to the impulse to work around the problem or wait and see if the employee gets better on their own, or simply quits.

Be aware of your timing. If the employee is currently highly emotional, vulnerable or otherwise unlikely to be able to hear and understand your concerns, you may need to wait for a better day. And if you’re too angry or impatient to have a calm discussion, you should also, of course, delay the meeting.

Be sure you have specific examples of the problem behavior, and let the employee know how it’s negatively impacting the team and productivity. Keeping the questions above in mind, offer support but be firm, and inform them that there will be consequences including potentially losing their job if the behavior persists.

Document your discussion with the employee and be clear about expectations and commitments. Transparent communication is always a valuable leadership skill but is especially important with these kinds of conversations. Focus on maintaining professionalism throughout sensitive discussions and give constructive feedback with authority.

As always, know and follow HR policies and procedures whenever you’re reviewing an employee’s behavior. If you find it hard to communicate with an employee, ask for help from your HR department or consider getting a management or leadership coach.

Following through is key 

After you’ve given a reasonable time for changes in behavior (but not so long that it appears you forgot or don’t care), schedule a time for feedback on progress. This could be positive encouragement or shared problem solving, depending on the employee’s progress.

Reiterate the problem and make consequences clear if changes have not been observed. If the employee has made progress, this is a great opportunity to rebuild your relationship with positive feedback that shows you value their contributions to the team.

The ultimate solution, of course, is to let the employee go.

But that means not only having to go through the expense and hassles of finding someone else, but also having to delegate the work to others in the meantime, potentially creating other unhappy employees.

That’s why it’s always better to nip things in the bud and deal with small employee issues early, before they start affecting everyone else.

Originally posted on Workplace 101 by Christina Krenek, May 2012. Updated and edited by Kristeen Bullwinkle, April 2018 and Michael M Davis, February, 2020.