Attitude Check: Turn Negative Workers into Positive Performers (Part 1)


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Phillip M. Perry |

Grumpy employees can alienate customers, cost you sales

NEW YORK — Do your employees play well with customers? Do they engage with the public in ways that spark business and promote loyalty to your dry cleaner?

In the best of worlds, you would always answer “Yes.” Fact is, though, every business has some employees who have a tendency to look on the dark side of things—a habit that can create negative interactions with customers. And even the sunniest workers have bad days. The cause might be a perceived snub from a supervisor. Or maybe it’s a marital crisis or a financial issue.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same: a grumpy employee who alienates customers. And that means lost sales and lower profits.

Negativity can take many forms, such as these examples:

  • James speaks to another employee, bad-mouthing a customer who just left the store. (Worse still, another customer overhears his remarks.)

  • You overhear Margareta tell a customer, “Management really stinks here.”

  • Andre says, “It’s not my job,” when asked to help out a customer who needs a special service.


All of those events—and others like them—can alienate customers and dent your bottom line. That’s why it’s important to take action before matters get worse.

“Quick attention is essential in dealing with negative behavior,” says Ian Jacobsen, a management consultant based in Morgan Hill, Calif. “Issues that are allowed to fester can grow out of proportion and become the impetus for still more negative behavior.”

An employee who is not confronted about undesirable workplace activity will assume the practice is acceptable, notes Jacobsen.

Moreover, because “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” destructive behavior can spread to other workers. Soon, your high-performing employees will start to get frustrated because they have to pick up the work left by the slackers.

Finally, as destructive attitudes spread, you may start to be viewed as a manager or owner who cannot handle challenging employees.


Acting fast is one thing. But just what should you do? Start by engaging with the employee involved. “Take the employee aside and describe exactly what you have seen or heard,” says Jacobsen.

Here’s an example of such a description, based on a supervisory response to the first of this article’s opening scenarios:

“James, I heard you talking with Amy about one of our customers who had just left the store. You stated that the customer was ‘a pain in the neck.’ This is inconsistent with what I would expect from you. What was that about?”

Notice that the words reflect the position of an observer who is simply gathering data. Avoid using terms that suggest a value judgment or cast a bad light on the employee’s intentions or motivation. Terms such as “bad-mouthing,” “rudeness” or “negative behavior” can quickly backfire by putting the employee on the defensive. And an employee who is trying to defend actions is not in the right mindset to work with you to resolve behavior issues. “Think of yourself as being like a newspaper reporter just reporting the facts,” advises Jacobsen.

Once you have stated what you observed, listen to the employee’s response.

“Don’t interrupt,” says Jacobsen. “Instead, wait for a break in the answer and then ask any further questions you need to understand the situation.”

To continue our example, James might offer the information that a few days earlier the customer had changed his mind several times in stating what he wanted from a service the store was offering. The frustration in dealing with the customer had angered James. As a result, he found himself letting off steam when dealing with that customer again.

Upon learning this, you have already gone a long way toward resolving the problem. Your data gathering has uncovered what is affecting James’s behavior: a short fuse when it comes to difficult customers.

Once the employee has explained what happened, summarize what you have heard to demonstrate that you understand. Then ask if your summary is accurate. If not, ask for further clarification.

The next step is to get the employee invested in a self-generated solution so the behavior does not recur. “Once the employee affirms that your summary is accurate, ask how the situation could have been handled better,” advises Jacobsen.

Using this example, you might say something like this:

“James, I realize that some of our customers can be demanding in terms of service and time. It’s not OK to say something like what you said about them, and the matter was made worse because another customer overheard what you said. How could you have handled this better?”

James might come up with a solution like counting to 10 or taking a quick walk around the store when feeling the urge to blow off steam.

“If the employee suggests a better way, and it is acceptable, go for it,” says Jacobsen. “He has come up with a way to solve the problem.” And that’s good—compliance will be better if the employee agrees to a self-generated solution rather than one imposed by the boss.

If the employee can’t think of a better way, then explain how you would like the situation handled in the future and ask if he or she can do that. In the example with James, you might suggest that the individual speak with you or a supervisor after dealing with a difficult customer, because talking about bad experiences can reduce their negative effects.

If an employee’s behavior has been serious enough, you may wish to confirm what has transpired in writing and provide a copy to the worker.

And don’t forget your follow-through.

“There is an old adage: ‘If you expect, you’ve got to inspect,’” says Jacobsen. “Check back from time to time to see if the employee has adopted the desired behavior. If so, commendation is in order. If not, take the person aside again and repeat the above process.”

You might also agree with the employee on a day to follow up, and mark your calendar so it doesn’t fall through the cracks.

Check back Wednesday for the conclusion!

About the author

Phillip M. Perry

Freelance Writer

Award-winning journalist Phillip M. Perry, who resides in New York City, is published widely in the fields of business management, workplace psychology and employment law, and his work is syndicated in scores of magazines nationwide.


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