HR How To: Managing a rude employee with an attitude

Although we know it when we see it, attitude is one of the hardest things to objectively define. In many cases, the employee doesn’t always realize a problem exists—especially when her work performance is good. Because of the subjectivity of the perceived “attitude,” the worker may believe she is being picked on or discriminated against when her manager attempts to deal with the issue.

There’s no question you have to deal with it—rudeness and a poor attitude towards coworkers can affect the morale and productivity of the entire team, and if the employee is rude to a customer the bottom line is directly impacted. To avoid liability issues—where the employee believes your complaints about attitude are really a cover for some form of discrimination or retaliation—it’s critical to focus on specific examples of the unacceptable behavior.

Step One: Document
Take some time to document specific examples of the employee’s rudeness and attitude. Note the exact words that were said and the particular details of each incident, such as whether the employee rolled her eyes or sighed repeatedly. Thorough documentation will help you provide enough context and detail to the employee that she understands the issue, and it can also be useful to prove your legitimate business reasons for action if you are ever served with an EEOC complaint, for example. The documentation can also be used later to support any discipline, or when including the information in the employee’s performance appraisal.

Step Two: Hold a Staff Meeting
Include an item on customer service and work group relations on the agenda for your next staff meeting, then record attendance at the meeting with a sign-in sheet. Discuss your expectations for conduct and behavior and give specific examples of behavior to aim for and behavior to avoid.

  • Conversation Tip Our company prides itself on exceptional customer service. We need customers to know that we value their service and we are happy to help with whatever requests and questions they have. We need to present a friendly, welcoming impression. Even if you’re frustrated, don’t let it show. Rolling your eyes, sighing, or conveying the appearance that the customer’s request is an inconvenience is not acceptable behavior.

Step Three: Counsel the Employee
If the employee’s rude behavior continues, set a time to meet with her. Provide specific examples of the behavior you have observed and explain why it isn’t acceptable. Inform the employee that this is a serious issue that will lead to discipline if it continues.

Sometimes the employee will question why she is being counseled when her work performance is good. Emphasize that the attitude and rudeness is just as much of a concern to the company—and can have as much of an impact on the bottom line—as poor performance on tasks.

  • Conversation Tip When a customer asks you for help, an example of excellent service would be to immediately assist them with a smile and ask if you can help with anything else. Yesterday, when a customer asked you for help, you sighed loudly, frowned and commented that they would have to wait until you had time. This isn’t acceptable. Behavior like this affects our revenue because the customer is unlikely to come back to us in the future.

Step Four: Reasons and Solutions
Ask the employee if any specific reasons for the behavior exist—for example, it happens when she is overwhelmed or she is quick to anger when she is stressed. Ask the employee to identify potential solutions, and offer some of your own, such as anger management or customer service training, assistance with prioritizing tasks to prevent her from getting so overwhelmed in the future, or a referral to the employee assistance program to find better ways to manage stress.

Step Five: Further Action
If the employee doesn’t change her behavior, further discipline—such as an employee warning*—will be necessary.

Things to Consider:

  • Check your policies. Do they cover unprofessional or rude behavior? Is the employee reasonably on notice that her actions are a policy violation?

Avoid relying on subjective factors such as “tone,” particularly in relation to emails, where tone is inferred by the reader. Instead, focus on concrete examples of attitude.

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