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Focus on Behavior to Turn Around a 'Bad Attitude'

Managing an employee with a “bad attitude” isn’t easy. Your best approach? Focus on behavior, not the attitude. And, be specific. Is the person egotistical and credit-grabbing? Does she spend too much time socializing? Does he pout or sulk when he doesn’t get his way? Or is she rude, surly and inconsiderate? All these behaviors are different, but all of them are commonly slapped with the “attitude problem” label.

Start by narrowing the issue to the specific problem or concern that’s bugging you or other employees. Then write down the actual behaviors and actions that are unacceptable. Be sure to record the non-verbal behaviors along with the verbal—make note of rolling eyes, arms crossed tightly against chest, slow negative head shakes.

Keep track of how often the behaviors occur, with times, dates and places. Once you have an accurate and complete summary of behaviors that generated the “attitude problem,” ask yourself, “What difference does it make?” You need to be fully prepared to explain what the person is doing that causes concern, as well as why the situation must immediately be changed. To help you analyze the adverse effects of this individual’s choice of behavior, answer the following questions:

  • What is the impact of the individual’s inappropriate behavior?
  • What are the business reasons for why the organization expects employees to act in ways other than the way this employee is acting right now?
  • How is the person’s behavior at odds with the standards expressed in the company’s statement of vision and values?
  • What effect does the negative attitude have on customers and/or co-workers?

With your written list of the unacceptable physical and verbal behaviors that you’ve observed, the list of times and dates when those behaviors have occurred and your summary of the business reasons that an immediate correction must be made, you’re fully prepared and ready to talk.

Once you’ve found a private place to talk, start by explaining that his behavior—don’t mention the word attitude—is causing a problem. Here’s a way to get your discussion off to a good start: “Jack, I have a problem, and I need your help.” This reduces defensiveness. Then talk about the specific things you have seen and heard that concern you and explain why you’re concerned. Then, ask for help in solving the problem, but don’t expect any useful responses. You’ll probably get a lot of denial—and maybe even an accusation that you’re overreacting. Wrap up this initial discussion swiftly by saying, “That’s great, Jack. I’m glad you feel there’s nothing to it. Let’s get back together in a week or so and make sure that the problem is solved.”

Often, simply finding out that others are aware of one’s bad behavior is enough to get the person to decide to change. But if a week passes and a total turnaround hasn’t occurred, talk again. Point out additional examples of inappropriate behaviors that concern you and, once more, request a change in his ways.

If you need a third session, point out bluntly that getting along with others and maintaining cooperative and businesslike relationships are as much a part of the job as building widgets or processing insurance claims. Go over in detail the list of unacceptable behaviors you’ve observed. Again, describe exactly what the person did or said that was inappropriate. Review the time, the place and the reactions of others who were in the vicinity. Explain the business reasons why change is mandatory—not preferred or requested—but obligatory and compulsory. Don’t hesitate to tell the person that she must stop behaving in unacceptable ways. State exactly what kind of behavior is required: courteous, cooperative and helpful.

In dealing with bad attitudes, there are no guarantees. It may be that all your informal efforts fail, and you have to move to formal disciplinary action and ultimately arrange a parting of the ways. But if termination does turn out to be the best answer, remember this: It’s not the people you fire who make your life miserable. It’s the people you don’t.

Dick Grote is chairman and CEO of Grote Consulting Corp. in Dallas. He is the author of Discipline Without Punishment (AMA, 1995) and The Performance Appraisal Question and Answer Book (AMA, 2002). Grote’s next book, Forced Ranking: Making Performance Management Work , is scheduled to be published in October by the Harvard Business School Press.

Terms of Use: © 2005 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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