Mastering Supervision Section 2: Group Project
On-line Newsletter: Positive Solutions for Negative Attitudes

How Penn State Human Resource Managers Address Negative Behavior 
by Amy Dietz

       As a supervisor, one of the challenging aspects of your job is successfully managing and motivating staff. When a staff member that you supervise engages in a pattern of behavior that impacts the work unit negatively, finding a way to address and correct the behavior can often be difficult.  Our group decided on the topic of addressing negative behavior in staff members because this is a problem that we have all faced. Sometimes the negative employee leaves the University or moves to a different unit, but as supervisors we need to proactively develop our interpersonal skills and take action rather than hope that the employee will change on their own.  Negativity spreads when unchecked and undermines morale, preventing staff from participating collaboratively with each other. To find out what approaches have been used with success, I interviewed four experienced Penn State Human Resource professionals to find out what strategies they employed to combat negative behavior.  

Jeanie Andrews, Assistant Manager of Employee Relations

     Jeanie pointed out that there is often a misperception about the difference between a "good worker" and a "good employee".  Jeanie explained: 

“A good employee exhibits behaviors that go beyond merely producing a product or providing a service.  A good employee exhibits collaboration, teamwork, a civil spirit, and a willingness to help others, including co-workers, customers, students and the general public.  The difficulties often surface when an individual's actions, inactions or demeanor contribute to an unhealthy work environment.  Often times that can be the most difficult issue to tackle -- especially if that individual is a "good worker", i.e., gets work produced but has all of the "negativity baggage" that comes along with it!  That individual, although a good worker, may not be a "good employee". 

    Jeanie recommends role-playing and addressing negative behaviors early on. This facilitates the awareness of the individual with regard to how those behaviors are impacting the workflow, their colleagues, and the general climate of the office. Jeanie further explains:

“Supervisors have often been effective in dealing with those individuals by pointing out the difference between a "good worker" and a "good employee".  Sometimes, if the individual is "getting the work done", supervisors may be reluctant to address the issue or feel that they cannot or should not address the issue.  However, to ignore the problem will likely result in an escalation of the issue and a sense of growing dissatisfaction among the individuals who are contributing to a healthy environment but seeing the unhealthy behavior go unaddressed.  It can be very effective to tell the individual:  ‘You are putting me in a very awkward position as a supervisor.  Although you perform the tasks assigned to you and complete the projects you are currently in charge of, the general atmosphere that is being created because of your negativity and incivility towards others is truly beginning to have a negative effect on the general office.  I want to tell you that now so that you and I can work together on dealing with that so we can turn it around.  This is especially important because I would hope we could deal with it at this early, informal level before it would begin having a negative impact on your performance evaluation and your overall effectiveness.’  In addition, there are some courses through HRDC that can also piggyback onto such a dialogue and action that can be very helpful and assist the individual in a non-threatening way to possibly understand the impact of behaviors and negativity.”

     Addressing the negative behavior directly and early on makes it harder for the employee to openly engage in toxic dialogue and shows other staff that negativity is unacceptable. Ideally, it may also help an employee realize how negatively this behavior reflects on them.

 Jennifer Morris, Director of Business Operations, College of the Liberal Arts

    Jennifer, the human resources director for the College of the Liberal Arts, stated that negativity conflict is one of the most difficult issues to successfully overcome in human resources for several reasons.  Often the employee lacks the self-awareness to recognize how others perceive their actions.  When confronted, these employees often do not believe they are negative.  The negative employees will perceive themselves as kind, generous, nurturing people and are oblivious to anything that contradicts this image. Because this behavior is a way of life for the employees, and was not addressed early in life, it is very hard for a supervisor to change. These employees are often unable to be objective, perceive the world as unfair (and any decision that they disagree with) and will over personalize situations rather than seek a collaborative resolution. 

    In some situations, Jennifer uses role-playing where she will play the role of the negative employee and the employee will play the supervisor in order to help the employee see the impact of their behavior.  Role-playing is very difficult to do because the supervisor must be able to customize each role-play using the exact words of the employee in order for them to hear what they sound like.  This strategy becomes even more difficult with introverts who are very uncomfortable acting a role.  However, if the employee is able to recognize how they are engaging in negative energy, and desire self-improvement, role-playing can facilitate the self-awareness toward changing their behavior. Jennifer has seen it work for employees who truly want to improve their interpersonal skills.

     Jennifer noticed that negative people will frequently say, “I just have to vent” as an excuse to go on a diatribe of complaints about a perceived unfairness. These employees force the listener to hear over and over the same negative spewing. To curb this behavior, Jennifer will say to the individual, “How do you think this makes me feel to hear this?”  The vent transfers the negativity. Disallowing the vent will often curb the behavior or at least keep it from happening around her.

 Cathy Ricard, Acting Manager, Libraries Human Resources

     Cathy has found that the high level of communication in the libraries has minimized a lot of the negativity that had been there a few years ago. She has found that negativity often stems from employees not being well-informed and feeling like they are not part of the decision. This culture of open communication starts with the Dean, who believes in sharing as much information with staff as possible while also welcoming feedback and suggestions.  By implementing some of these suggestions, employees feel they are important and part of the organization on every level.

    Nevertheless, there are always issues of negativity in every unit. Unchecked gossip spreads negativity and causes many problems.  Cathy advises supervisors and employees to avoid devoting time to the whiners and gossipers when they are complaining.  A supervisor should take someone’s personality into consideration when addressing negative behavior.  Valid concerns are one thing, but those who engage in behavior with the intention of getting others as fired up as they are about something insignificant are looking for a reaction. If the other party refuses to act interested in the negativity or gossip, they are less likely to continue if they see people are not interested in hearing about it. 

 Carolyn Fisher, Human Resources Manager, Housing and Food Services

     Carolyn feels that the behavior of the supervisors influences the behavior of the staff members. The supervisor should serve as a role model by displaying a positive attitude and making clear the expectation of how attitude factors into the SRDP evaluation. The supervisor should point out the negative behavior to the employee as it occurs and also discuss it on their performance appraisal to make them accountable for it.  In addition, the employee should attend seminars and professional development programs, especially those that target negativity in the workplace.

     Carolyn recommends that supervisors and employees read the book, Attitude is Everything, by Keith Harrell. This book gives tips that help a supervisor find out what motivates the employee. As a supervisor, you should make sure you know what this is and do it. Find out what the employee does in their spare time for enjoyment and use this knowledge to try to make work fun.  Personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs will help you and the employee know where they channel their energy. 

     Heart to heart talks with the supervisor or the human resource representative can be effective.  If you can do this anonymously, have peers write up how the “poor” attitude is affecting them and share it with the negative person. Ask the employee why they are feeling this way, if something else is wrong and what you (the supervisor) can do to help.  Let the employee know about the EAP and that you are simply giving them information about a resource.


     With almost ten percent of workers engaging in negative behavior, negativity is a serious problem in the workplace.  Totally eliminating negativity may not be possible, but there are strategies that do work that show the employee that such behavior will not rewarded or ignored.  Addressing the problem quickly, assisting employees in self-awareness and verbalizing clear expectations of acceptable behavior are some of the strategies human resource professionals have used successfully. One thing that does not work is hoping that the employees will “get it” by themselves as this only allows the problem to entrench itself deeper in the work unit. Not every strategy will be effective with every negative employee.  The onus is on the supervisor to find what may be effective and to try it.  

This publication is available in alternative media on request.