Negative Nellies: Confront them, isolate them or cut them loose?

Tired of whining and complaining

Left unchecked, negativity can poison the workplace and undermine productivity.

Veteran employees generally dismiss the rantings of a single negative co-worker, but new hires can be very vulnerable.

That’s the situation manager Amy Colton faced when one of her bright new hires was getting dragged down by a co-worker’s negative comments.

‘Dying to get a job like this’

New employee Sally Brown knocked shyly on Amy’s door.

“Got a minute?” Sally asked.

“Sure,” Amy said. “How’s the job going so far? I know the first month can be overwhelming.”

“Oh, I love the job,” Sally said. “I’ve been dying to get a job like this.”

Would rather not sit next to Eric

“Great, so anything I can help you with?” Amy asked.

“I…er…don’t know how to ask this…”

“Well, just go ahead and ask.” Amy said.

“Well, I know I haven’t been here very long, but I was wondering if I could move to another cubicle?” Sally asked.

“We’re tight on space, Sally, is something wrong?” Amy asked.

“Id rather not sit next to Eric.”

‘He complains about everything’

Amy cringed as the possibility of sexual harassment flashed through her mind. “Did he do something inappropriate?”

“Oh no, nothing like that,” Sally said. “I just can’t be around such a negative person.”

Amy was relieved. “Well, I know he can be a little annoying. What do you mean?”

“He complains about everything. He complains that he has too much work. When the work is given to someone else, he complains that he’s being left out of the loop…  The coffee in the break room sucks… He whines about his salary… Everyone else is an idiot…  It’s too depressing,” Sally said.

The Big Question

Amy knew Eric was a grouser. It had never hurt his performance, but his behavior was clearly affecting Sally.

Sally was a great new hire and Amy didn’t want Eric poisoning the well for her. She needed to take some action, but wasn’t sure what the next step should be.

If you were in Amy’s situation, what would you do? One of the ideas below offered by our readers might provide you with some guidance

1) Decide who has the problem first

I’d have to investigate to see if the issue was Sally being too sensitive or Eric being too negative. If Sally’s perceiving this and others aren’t, then I’d bring her in and try to get her real issue out. If Eric was the problem, I’d make him aware of the issue. Most people don’t realize something like this until it’s brought to their attention. Usually they turn around pretty quickly. But his comments, especially about salary, were negative towards the company. One of our rules is you can’t bad mouth the company. I’d give him goals for improvement. If he didn’t meet them I’d consider termination.

– Susan Strassner, HR Manager, West Pharmaceutical Services, Montgomery, PA

2) Let him vent to the ones who can change things

Eric’s negativity isn’t the issue here. It’s his expression. He’s disrupting Sally, and surely others in the work area. That affects the whole company. I’d tell him if he has something negative to say about the company, discuss it with me. I can help him see why things are done a certain way. If he’s given the opportunity to discuss complaints directly with management and if he continues to talk negatively behind our back, the niceties would end. He’d be ordered to stop and if he did it agao he’d be written up. Continuing would most likely lead to dismissal.

– David Wasson, Assistant GM, Benbrook Water Authority, Benbrook, TX


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  1. says

    It could be that he is suffering from “dis-engagement syndrome”. In the absence of someone (his manager) sitting down and re-sharing the company vision and how he fits in to the overall picture, he may feel disconnected and have a distorted view of things that happen around him. Listening, shining a light on the bigger picture and helping him see how he can contribute to it can many times turn a “Negative Nellie” into a “Positive Powerhouse”.

  2. says

    May be in the minority but I’d figure out how to move her seat. I would also reach out to Eric to schedule some 1×1 time – not to berate him but to build a relationship with him. If he’s unhappy, or just spreading negativity, I’d want to open communication with him because whining never changes things but talking about things with people that can make a difference sure can.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

    • says

      Alli… It is true – most people do not come into work every morning saying “I am going to be a negative influence at work” (although it may seem that way at times)… Something happens along the way that knocks them off the path… Making the effort to reconnect them to the mission is good advise…

  3. Ann Darioli says

    I’m thinking along Jonathan’s line. Positive reinforcement for longer term staff members is so important. They often see new recruits receiving coaching and encouragement but because they’ve been in the role for some time and are proven achievers, they’re often forgotten. It’s incredibly important to provide them with feedback about their continued contribution to the business and, where possible, ask them to coach new team members. From experience I believe this is a real win-win for everyone.

  4. Johan Mokhtar says

    “He complains about everything.”

    That makes me wonder if Eric’s complaining is masking a deeper issue. The complaints about too much work, too little work, the quality of the coffee, his salary (although hands up anyone who feels that they are paid too well!) are signs that Eric is not happy about something in his life. I’m sure that the real issue is not the quality of the coffee in the break room.

    They key is in Amy helping Eric identify and express what the underlying issue is, and counseling and coaching him as appropriate to deal with the source of his unhappiness.

    Do that, and Eric will be a happier and much more positive person. And not at risk of being terminated.

  5. says

    Vern Harnish gives sound advice in his book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits: “Never talk negatively about anyone if that person is not present.” Amy has not constructed a team. We employ a set of simple disciplined tools to enable teams to handle these sorts of issues, and any business issue in an open and honest way during a weekly team meeting. Part of getting 100% of your workers fully engaged is dealing with behavior explicitly. Under that methodology, called Behavioral Advantage, this situation would never have come up in this way. It would have been raised, either by Eric long before Sally showed up, or by Sally in the team meeting. We resolve issues by first digging for what the real issue is, then looking at alternative solutions, picking one, and listing S.M.A.R.T. to-do’s to deliver that solution.

  6. Supervisor says

    I was greeted by one of these people on my first day at a new job, one that I’d traveled over 1,000 miles to get to during the previous weekend. I’d given up EVERYTHING to take this job, in an organization I’d worked in many years previously with good memories. Within minutes of meeting Mr Negative Nelly, he said “Why would you want to work *here*? This place is a mess!”

    Fortunately, I saw him for what he was and didn’t take it to heart, but since I had to work closely with him, it really dragged me down. Plus, the coworkers who listened to his rants about upper management (I called them “the cabal”) dragged things down too. He was openly negative in meetings and never got on board with any initiatives.

    When we got a new boss, he sucked up to her, and I got the boot in a reorganization. So did his sycophants. He was promoted, but without his audience he wasn’t interested in the job (well, it also meant doing more work and less ranting), so he quit soon after that. Yes, I’m bitter. This one person ruined my experience, caused me to lose my job (god knows what he said to the new boss about me) and possibly cost the jobs of the others who spent time listening to his sermons rather than accomplishing their goals.

    That boss is still there years later. I wouldn’t go back for twice the salary.

  7. says

    The manager should empower Sally to chat with Eric first. It is possible Eric has no idea that he is coming off so negatively. In the same right, it does nothing for Sally if the manager intervenes every time Sally has an interpersonal conflict. It also does not give Eric the benefit of the doubt.
    Sally should document the conversation with a quick email follow up to Eric about the conversation. In the meantime, the manager can still chat with Eric to try to tackle some of his negativity issues, separate from Sally’s complaint.
    If the problem persists then the manager can intervene, with the knowledge that she has allowed her team to first try to solve issues on their own, and that Sally has documentation of following up with Eric. The manager will also go into the intervention knowing that she had also checked in with Eric, separate from Sally’s complaint.

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