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A bad attitude can be infectious

Dear Dave: I am a manager at a Rochester company. One of my sales people has a bad attitude and a bad temper. I have received complaints from customers as well as a few employees about him being rude to them. Amazingly, he does hit his sales targets. Can I fire him for his bad attitude? We don’t have a policy about bad attitudes and we only look at sales performance. — S

Dear S: First, let me say that I am amazed this employee can hit sales goals when his customers feel as they do. There is something working for him, but I suspect it is not sustainable if relationships with both customers and fellow employees are poor.

If you are an at-will employer and this employee is an at-will employee, then you can fire him at any time with or without notice or cause. However, I don’t think that is a good idea, because it may leave you open to claims that the real reason for the termination was discriminatory or retaliatory.

Ripple effect

Kim (last name omitted) is a local healthcare professional and she believes bad attitudes are dangerously contagious. She states, "Employees with negative attitudes are as damaging as employees with poor performance. If employees are allowed to display inappropriate behavior in the workplace, an environment of negativity may result. Much like that one friend we all have with the unique laugh that is so infectious it makes the rest of us laugh, the employee with a bad attitude is a catalyst of negativity across the office."

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My belief is you can have an attitude problem, but not necessarily be an angry person. However, if someone is angry at work, they definitely have an attitude problem. Underlying causes could be job burnout, work exhaustion, job stress, or stressors outside the workplace.

Not all employees are going to have ideal interpersonal skills, but if an employee overtly shows anger, hostility, and negativity in the workplace, this is a huge concern — especially when this person is in front of customers. If I were a customer of this employee, I would either throw him out, or just quit doing business with the company.

What to do

When dealing with a negative and/or angry worker, some experts claim you should concentrate on the consequences of that bad attitude, detailing specifically what the attitude is doing to others. For example, if the employee has an inability to get along with co-workers, you must clearly tell the employee what that is causing such as the fear, anxiety, and discomfort felt by other employees.

The employee must be disciplined, or even terminated for their behavior, especially if he/she will not change. Employees should be given an opportunity to make the changes necessary but, you must define reality to this person and if discipline is required, then start the process with behavioral adjustments being at the forefront of expectations.

Advice to managers

It is best to establish a systemic process to deal with such dilemmas. Here are some ideas:

1. Establish clear goals — before you confront a negative, angry employee, you should know what you want to do and what impact the employee is having on the company.

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2. Research and gather evidence from other employees and customers — ask them about what they see and what may be the reasons for the problem. This information is important when talking to the employee and for preparation of a remediation plan.

3. Discuss the issue with other managers — ask other managers what they have experienced, what they did, and what happened. Also, try to hammer out a method of handling that all managers can agree on.

4. Meet with the employee – be clear that a meeting is necessary and that you intend to address important issues. Note: the employee will most likely prepare defensive statements, but will not have data … you will.

5.Offer to get the employee some help — involve your employee assistance program (EAP) or other mental health services. The more you can offer, the better an outcome you will likely see. To get employee acceptance of the problem, a good tactic is to ask for the person's help in solving the problem.

In summary

Know and explain the business reasons why behavioral change is mandatory and not just preferred or requested. However, if all else fails, the next step is termination.

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