Human Resources News & Insights

Dealing with acidic attitudes: Help for your managers

Every workplace has negative people who erode morale. They’re not always easy to pick out of a crowd, but they can do an amazing amount of damage over time.

Most of the time, these folks don’t make the big mistakes that call attention to themselves. They’re frequently pretty good at their jobs, so they’re not called on the carpet too often.

But like a virus running in the background of a computer program, their acidic personalities eat away at the goals – and ultimately the bottom line – of the company week after week, year after year.

Who are these people? They’re the employees who:

  • continually find things to complain about and exaggerate the seriousness of co-workers’ mistakes
  • spread gossip and start rumors that pit employees against each other
  • talk behind co-workers’ backs, and
  • undermine supervisors’ authority with a never-ending flow of criticism that stays under-the-radar so it’s rarely recognized and corrected.

It’s been said the only way to fix a bad attitude is through psychotherapy, religion or brain surgery.  But it’s a rare manager who is a shrink, a minister and a neurosurgeon.

Still, every manager needs a strategy to deal with this constant drag on employee attitudes.

The stakes are too high to just let things slide.

Looking for answers – 4 key questions

So what’s to be done? The experts say managers should move away from the vague “bad attitude” discussion to the hard facts of employee behavior.

The key questions:

  • What’s the impact of the employee’s behavior?
  • How do the person’s actions differ from the standards set for overall employee behavior?
  • What’s the effect of this individual’s behavior on the people who work with him/her?
  • If this person acted according to our accepted standards, could it make a difference in morale and productivity?

Managers should identify the actions of negative people – and make it clear those actions will no longer be tolerated.

An example: A Midwestern company established a “no jerk” policy. It included the statement:

Each employee will demonstrate professional behavior that supports team efforts and enhances team behavior, performance and productivity.

Handling tough conversations with acidic employees

Establishing policy is a solid first step; it creates a good framework.

But managers need practical advice that gets results day to day on the front lines.

Managers need one-on-one coaching sessions to cover these points:

  • Acknowledge the awkwardness. Managers can let employees know they’re providing feedback that’s difficult to discuss. It’s only human to feel that way.
  • Keep it results-oriented. A phrase like “I’m bringing this up because it’s important you address this issue to be successful in your job” is helpful.
  • Accentuate the positive. It’s a good idea to highlight the good things that are likely to happen when the person changes the disruptive behavior. On the other hand, if the person remains defiant, stressing the negative outcome if the person’s attitude doesn’t change can be effective, too.

It’s human nature to want to delay having a tough conversation with an employee with a bad attitude. But that only makes things worse.

And since it’s going to be a tough conversation, it’s recommended that supervisors prepare for the discussion.

Suggestions for handling the confrontation:

  • Be specific about what you want. It’s a mistake to use general terms in a discussion about a specific behavior problem. For example, a manager says “I don’t like your attitude. I want you to change it.” That’s pretty safe, but it could mean anything.
    Instead, the manager should say “It’s not helpful the way you talk about our customers behind their backs. It poisons the attitude of the others in customer service. From now on, if you can’t say something supportive of a customer, please don’t say anything at all.”
    Managers should try to gather specific examples of negative things the employee has said in the past, and use those in the discussion for clarity.
  • Let people rant … a little.  Once a manager has gotten through discussing the specific behaviors, it’s likely the other person is going to feel the need to blow off steam and maybe even mount a defense. To avoiding having people feel like they are on the witness stand, let them rant a bit.
    It’ll help them feel like they are being heard –  because they are. Then steer the conversation back to the results you want.
  • Try to use “we.” Work to get across the notion that the issue is a problem for everyone concerned. A manager can start by saying “We have a problem” or “We need to change.”
    The helps the person realize the behavior is important, without finger-pointing.
  • Avoid overusing “you.” Putting all the responsibility on the employee is a conversational black hole that’s impossible to escape. The constant use of the word you, as in “You have a bad attitude and everyone knows it” is an invitation for a fight.
    Instead, try “We need to talk about your attitude.”
    The point here is, while it is OK to use the word “you,” using it continually in a negative way kills the conversation.
  • Avoid “however” and “but.” Some managers believe that if they lead with a compliment, it’s easier to wade into the problem. That conversation looks something like this: “You’ve done a pretty good job, but …” and then the manager lowers the boom.
    That often angers people and leaves them thinking, “Why can’t he ever just say something positive and leave it at that?”
    Consider substituting “and” for “but” and “however,” and the conversation is likely to go smoother, as in: “You’re doing a pretty good job and we need to talk about how to get you to show more respect for customers.”
  • Don’t feel as if you have to fill the silence. In a tense situation a manager may be tempted to fill every gap in the conversation. Don’t. Stay silent when there’s a lull. Obligate the other person to fill in the silence.
    It’s surprising the amount of information a manager can get without ever asking a question … just by remaining silent.


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  1. If you have a jerk at the helm or in any upper level position, then you will breed jerks beneath them. You’ve got to root it out from the top down or you’re wasting your time and being dishonest.

  2. “It’s surprising the amount of information a manager can get without ever asking a question … just by remaining silent.” – could this also hold true for Bill Cosby and Scott Simon?

  3. My goodness! I stumbled upon this newsletter looking for some managerial tips but am surprised that the comments are full of unprofessional feedback and quite unprofessional wording. Is this a news letter or a blog?

  4. SickNTired says:

    For me, this could absolutely not be further from the truth. We’re bullied and berated constantly – to the point that I’m looking and am going to give up a pension job and 15 years service! I can’t take it anymore.

  5. James Catada says:

    I hope this one will help handling our employee who has a very bad attitude and poisoning our company

  6. says:

    Some Good Advice but what about the managers who are jerks or bullies to their direct reports but ultra nice to their superiors? One of our consultant at KunbaHR ( – an online HR Management firm, ran into this situation when conducting a team building workshop. Almost all direct reports had pretty bad things to say about their supervisor but this person’s supervisor had nothing but nice things to say about her. How do you solve this paradox?

  7. Poisonous employees are a drain on team and your best bet as a business leader is to have good HR procedures in place to prevent hiring them in the first place!

  8. In Australia it’s really hard to terminate toxic employees because of employment laws, so be careful who you hire.

  9. Not EVERY company has an acidic employee. Some of the smart ones take steps to avoid toxic workers like these (this article talks more about how to do that: It’s a hard thing to do, because their characteristics seem positive in interviews. Look past the outgoing, overconfident interviewees and make sure the people you are hiring are a good fit, not just ultra-experienced.

  10. Great article – I especially liked the specific and actionable advice you provided. When dealing with acidic employees, I try to keep the following quote in mind: “People aren’t against you; they’re for themselves”. In other words, trying to understand what “benefits” an employee gains from being acidic (e.g., gaining attention) or the “what’s in it for them” (e.g., feeling superior) can be very helpful for understanding the root of the problem and addressing it accordingly.

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