Can You Discipline an Employee for a Bad Attitude?

This blog is a guest post by Elizabeth Hagedorn at Integrity HR in Louisville, KY. If your business is looking for HR consulting or solutions, we strongly recommend Integrity HR. 

In a word, yes. But wait! Read the rest — you shouldn’t just go off and write down “bad attitude” on a performance review when you have employee relations issues such as this. There are a number of things to consider, and a way to go about addressing the attitude that will actually be productive and yield a change. The question is not can you discipline an employee for a bad attitude, but it should be how should you discipline an employee for a bad attitude.

Ultimately, the problem with addressing an employee’s bad attitude is that the description of that attitude is subjective. If they are getting to work on time and doing the work that they are supposed to do, it’s difficult to address how they interface with others without it coming down to one person just not liking another.

This is also a tough issue to handle because there are emotions in the mix – the associate’s emotions behind whatever is causing the “bad attitude”, and your emotions that have been stirred up by the “bad attitude”.

That said, how employees act toward one another is integral to the success of an organization. Employees with bad attitudes can cause a boatload of employee relations issues and cannot be ignored. They do need to be addressed, and sometimes even be told to pack it up.

The key to handling employee relations issues is to focus on objective facts and observable behavior, not the attitude that you feel is causing it.

Tips to Help you Discipline an Employee for a Bad Attitude:

  • Talk to the person in private.
  • Tell the associate how you perceive his/her actions and how they make you feel, as well as how they impact the workplace and other associates.
  • Avoid the word “attitude” – use “behavior” or “conduct” instead.
  • Be specific about the problem behaviors.

Perhaps begin the conversation by explaining to him or her the adage that perception is as strong as reality until it is proven otherwise, and then explain how you perceive his actions to be.

If they are rude to others, be prepared to tell them what they’ve done and how it affects the workplace. If they antagonize others and instigate complaints without merit and start rumors, site the examples and how this impacts morale and productivity. You need to focus on the behavior of the employee, not their character.

For example, “Based upon how you interacted with the staff in the meeting this morning, I feel like you’re angry with me and the rest of the department.”

Another good way to address interpersonal issues is to ask the associate to take another perspective: “How would you feel if you were the manager and one of your staff responded that way in front of the department? Or how would it make you feel if I responded to your questions with that kind of voice or body language?”

It’s important to remember that non-verbal communication is critical in our culture, and these are all socially accepted examples of people showing a lack of interests or a negative response. They are observable, quantifiable (how often do they do it?) and able to be documented. Some examples include: rolling eyes, arms crossed resolutely across the chest, not looking others in the eyes, shaking their heads when others are talking and talking over others.

Now that you’ve isolated what behaviors are unacceptable or detrimental to the workplace, you need to be prepared to tell the employee why. Some behaviors may actually violate workplace policy (housekeeping rules, customer service standards, even behavior that violates Company’s Mission or Vision Statement). You also need to be able to explain how their behavior impacts others and why the company expects their employees to act according to other standards.

Getting the individual to acknowledge that they are engaging in a particular behavior is the first step, the second step is finding out why. Sometimes, we don’t get to the second step. However, even if we just get to the first, and we get the individual to commit to not repeating it, we’ve made headway in the workplace.

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