How to Manage a Negative Employee

Did anyone you know instantly come to mind when you read the title of this article?

Every business seems to have at least one negative employee. This person finds flaws in the best of situations. He often believes that nobody works as hard or cares as much as he does. The highlight of his day is the lunch break, during which he recounts and analyzes all of the burdens you’ve put on him.

Of course, no one is happy all the time. Thinking that you’re going to find a team of people straight out of a Disney special is unrealistic. But if you have a staffer who casts a dark cloud over every workday, you need to take action.

Here are six strategies for managing a negative employee.

1. Don’t write off the negativity. It’s easy to dismiss negative behavior with remarks like “that’s just her personality.” But, as the boss, your failure to take action is likely affecting others on your team. Maybe the situation isn’t as bad as you think, but if it is, it’s hurting your company’s culture.

2. Reject excuses. Remind your employee that she controls her attitude and that complaining and fault-finding is a choice. However, follow the advice of Dale Carnegie Training, which stresses that leaders have to take a genuine interest in those around them: If the employee is coping with a personal matter that is affecting her professional attitude, be sympathetic without condoning the behavior.

3. Make the employee part of the solution. Best-selling leadership coach John Maxwell calls the negative employee on your team Critical Carl. He’s a good worker and can see the problems in the best-laid plans of others. He’s the reason you’ve avoided potentially disastrous mistakes, and he’s a valuable member of the team. But his propensity to criticize everything and everyone quickly becomes a weight on the shoulders of your company. Tell Carl that you’re interested in hearing his concerns, but that you want him to tell you rather than other employees.

4. Force positive behavior. When you talk with Critical Carl about his negative attitude, give him a goal: Tell him that if he has a problem with a plan, a person, or a situation, you would like to hear something positive he’s found as well. If he’s going to focus on the bad, make him consider the good, too. You can’t change how he thinks, but you can set standards about the language and tone he uses at work.

5. Develop an action plan. Establish a reasonable timeline for behavioral change and make a future date to discuss progress. Talk about what specific behaviors you need to see and which benchmarks will demonstrate that changes have taken place. Next, let the employee have some space to accomplish the goals the two of you have set.

6. Know when to say goodbye. When was the last time your words were so powerful that you changed somebody’s personality? “It’s a big mistake to try and fix a bad attitude,” says Tim Chen, CEO of NerdWallet. Work to resolve any problems causing the negativity, and if the bad attitude continues, let the employee go. You have gone the extra mile to create a compatible environment. “If addressing the source of [an employee’s] unhappiness doesn’t work, it’s especially important to jettison these people early, because each member’s cultural impact is heavily felt across a small organization.”

About Tim Parker

Tim Parker is the owner of ECS, LLC, a company specializing in financial and small business content. His writing has appeared in many of the top financial blogs including Investopedia, Yahoo! Finance, Benzinga, Business Insider, and Forbes. Find him on Twitter @expositioncreat and Breaking Finance
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Laura Dodson
Laura Dodson

I think it's important listen to the negative talk and discover if there are any trends.  For example if it's a new product, perhaps there are significant flaws that need to be fixed.  If it's negative talk about the office layout, put them in charge of fixing the perceived flaws.  Significant negativity can a precursor to a business failing because the employees sense when the end is near.  Just labeling someone as negative isn't addressing the problem.  Finding the pattern, is.

Diana Davis
Diana Davis

How about listening to what the employee is saying and see if there is any validity to it.  If there is address the issue at hand before giving the employee benchmarks and considering letting them go.  You could be letting someone go and the issue remains causing other good employees to develop a negative attitude or leave.  Leadership is part of this and not listening to employees is poor leadership. 


One of the most important aspects I've found in managing a negative employee is touched on in the statement, "Work to resolve any problems causing the negativity...".  As a manager and leader, I believe we must recognize that we influence the work environment either positively or negatively.Sometimes our own actions or inactions create a breeding ground for negative behavior. When I address an employee who constantly exhibits a negative behavior, I don't 'rush to judgment'. Instead, I'm reminded of Zig Ziglar's idiom, "When you're pointing one finger at someone else, you have three pointing at yourself."  If an employee perceives that he or she has been wronged in some way, overlooked or denied an opportunity, etc., it is not unreasonable to think the end result may be a negative attitude.


Thank you Tim great points. I am reminded of a scenario where negative employee is called into the boss's office and asked what the employee would do with such a negative employee. It worked to wake up the employee.


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