Managing Negative Employees

No matter how carefully you pick the members on your team, you may still end up with a negative employee. These workers don’t necessarily fall into the category of “toxic,“ but they’re just kind of a drag with their cynical, pessimistic worldview.

Managing negative employees requires its own set of skills and approaches, according to David Lewis, president and CEO of human resources consultancy Operations Inc. And while the best course of action will vary depending on the situation’s specifics, this dynamic shouldn’t be ignored, because it can affect culture and the morale of other employees, he says.

If you’re dealing with a negative employee, there are six steps to take.

  • Look at the Fallout. If a person simply has a sour disposition but it’s not preventing them or others from doing their job well, you probably don’t need to address it, says David Dye, president of Trailblaze, Inc., a leadership training and consulting firm. However, if the person’s negativity is compromising their strengths – for example, the brilliant data analyst’s work goes unused because everyone avoids him – then it’s important to address it, Dye says.
  • Find out why. If you decide to proceed in addressing the behavior, think about whether there have been behavior changes recently, advises Kelly O’Connell, vice president in charge of hiring and retention at Irvine Technology Solutions. Is the negativity a constant or has the behavior escalated? If the latter, was there an event that led up to the change? “Individuals in the workplace live multi-dimensional lives, and other non-workplace stressors may impact work productivity and mood,” she says.
  • Is it just a matter of different personalities? “Many behaviors get labeled as negative – even quiet introverts can be called negative when they’re really just reflective and shy,” says David Dye, president of Trailblaze, Inc. Are you really dealing with someone who’s negative, or are you dealing with someone who’s quiet? Also, some co-workers are very analytical and respond to new ideas by pointing out flaws or potential challenges. Such behavior may be seen as negative. Fostering understanding of these different styles may improve the workplace for everyone.
  • Discuss goals. When discussing the situation with your negative employee, Dye recommends framing the discussion in the context of the individual’s goals. “If the employee wants to have more influence or a leadership position, you need to know that in order to help them grow,” he says. Get to the root of the issue and find out if the employee needs additional training, perhaps in management or communication skills, to overcome a deficit.
  • Address issues. If there are workplace issues that can be solved, consider doing so if it makes sense. If there are personal issues that have caused an escalation in negative behavior, examine whether accommodations can be made to help the person while they’re going through such challenges. Some employees don’t have great interpersonal skills, and putting them in jobs where they are more focused on job-related tasks than on interactions with others can be an effective solution, too.
  • Be proactive about prevention. As you address the issues of one employee, look at the big-picture solutions that can make your work culture more pleasant, advises Kelly O’Connell, a VP with Irvine Technologies. Adopt an open-door work environment in which employees have safe, convenient channels to express negative grievances, or provide employees with free or subsidized EAP access, she says. Work on positive reinforcement as well. For example, find an area of contribution where a negative employee shines, and focus more of that employee’s work in that area to maximize their contribution.


Negative employees can be a drag, but understanding the reasons for their behavior and finding ways to address them can create a better environment for everyone.

How can KeySolutions EAP help with dealing with negative employees? We can do consultations with HR and/or supervisors. We offer various training for supervisors and employees. Contact us with how we can help you with your workplace issue at 605-334-5850 or 888-450-7844

Edited from articles in Employee Assistance Report, Volume 19, No 10 and 11, October and November 2016.

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