Is a Poisonous Attitude Reason to Fire an Employee?

Her Coworkers Depend on You to Take Action for a Harmonious Workplace

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Reader Question:

An employee with a tremendous amount of knowledge is bitter and angry all of the time. She is very good at her job. She also believes that everyone else is incompetent at theirs. This person used to have a leadership position but no longer does.

She was very harsh and critical and used her authority to bully people on her team. She used security cameras to make personal records of everyone's activities.

No one knows of any practical reason for this.

In her reduced capacity she apparently still keeps records of anything anyone does that she does not approve of. She is very unhappy with the person who took her old job, and her new supervisor as well.

She has been spoken to about her constant gossip on the floor and negative attitude. The result of those talks is that she only complains when her supervisor is not around to hear. She is (nearly) always polite to everyone while they are in front of her, but that stops when they walk away.

So, this angry and negative person does a very good job. She is always at work, always on time. She is careful not to be too critical when supervisors or managers are around. She is also quick to spread rumors, to go 'over' her lead with issues.

Despite her skills, I believe that her attitude is poisoning the team. Is this a reason to fire someone? How would you go about letting such an employee go?

If you would keep her, what tactics could be used to contain the venom?

Our Response:

First of all, yes, this is a great reason to let someone go, but only if you can't fix the problem. Chances are that you can fix the problem. After all, you don't want to lose an employee who “does a very good job” if you don't have to.

But, let's be clear: No one who is “poisoning the team” is actually doing a very good job, because not being a poisonous snake should be part of the job description for every job.

There is a plan you can follow that will dramatically improve the chances that she'll become nice, but it's not a 100 percent effective plan. Why isn't it 100 percent effective?

Because we're dealing with humans and humans can always make their own choices. She may choose to ignore you, and she may choose that she doesn't like the instruction to change and just up and quit.

Implement a Performance Improvement Plan with the Employee

What you want to do is implement a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that stresses progressive discipline. This is where you follow a series of steps, with the idea that if the employee does not change or improve, you end up with termination at the end. It's that end termination that makes this process different than simply speaking to your employee about the problem.

So, here are your steps.

Have a sit-down discussion with the employee. While you may have counseled the employee in passing, (“Hey, I noticed you were very negative in that meeting”) this is the time for pointed, directed, and seated information. You can also ask questions and find out what she's thinking. It may be possible that she doesn't realize how negative she is being. So, try this:

“Jane, I've noticed you are unhappy and speak quite negatively about your job and the other people who work here. For instance, I've noticed that while you're always polite face to face, you'll say negative things behind people's backs.

"Part of your job is building good relationships with coworkers, and this behavior undermines this. What can I do to help you in this area?”

The question at the end will allow your employee to speak up and share her grievances. Which, most likely she will have. Here's the thing: You can be compassionate. You can even say, “It must be difficult for you to continue to work with Sheryl since she took over your old position.”

But, at the end of all the sympathy, you need to come to this: “Regardless, the behavior is inappropriate in this office. We value your work and we don't want to lose you, but if you cannot pull this together, we will terminate your employment.”

Document the time, date, and content of the discussion. At this stage you can present her with an official performance improvement plan document that details what is expected of her.

Follow up. You should never expect instantaneous perfection from an employee in this process. After all, it takes a lot of effort to change. The critical factor here, though, is that you can't just start ignoring the bad behavior. If you notice something, correct it in the moment, but otherwise, follow up with the employee in two weeks. 

At the two week meeting, if she's making great progress, congratulate her. (“Jane, I've noticed a real change in your behavior. You're not where you need to be, but I'm noticing a big change. Let's keep moving forward. What can I do to help you?”)

If she's not making progress, this is where the progressive part of progressive discipline kicks in. 

Present her with a written warning. This should include details of the problems she needs to resolve as well as the information that if her behavior does not improve, your organization will suspend her, and then, terminate her employment.

Explain that this warning is placed in her employee file. Ask her to sign to indicate that she has received this warning. She may object, saying that she disagrees with what is written. You can explain that her signature doesn't indicate agreement, but rather that she has received it. 

Suspension. If she's still not making progress, it's time for a suspension. “Jane, we've talked about your attitude problem and the behavior our organization experiences because of it. It's not improving.

"As I've said, we really value your work, but we value all of our employees. Your negative attitude and gossip are damaging to the department. As I explained two weeks ago, because you are not making progress, you will be suspended, without pay for one day.” 

It's critical that Jane does no work on her suspension day. If she's exempt, you'd be required to pay her for the whole day if she does any work. If she's non-exempt, you're required to pay her for the number of hours she worked. So, make it very clear that she is not to work at all. She is not to check her email. She is not to take calls. 

Termination. If the behavior does not improve after the suspension, it's time to let your negative employee go. While you might be tempted to keep her on, understand that if you do that, you will have no power over this employee ever again. She will know that she can do whatever she wants to and you won't really do much.

 If you say, “But I can't afford to lose her!” think again. Negative employees who gossip are damaging to your whole department. Your other employees are more likely to quit and are not as engaged as they would be if they were in a functional department. You owe it to all of your employees to take care of this one, which means firing her if she doesn't change her ways.

Working with Negative Coworkers

In the weeks leading up to and following the use of the PIP to correct the negative employee's behavior and performance, coworkers are challenged to get along with this coworker. These resources provide ideas for working effectively with negative, poisonous people.

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