How to Deal With the Office Debbie Downer

Small businesses are only as good as their employees. Have one bad apple and it can wreck the entire apple cart. But a small business owner doesn’t have to let one morale-sapping employee infect the whole office. While the best action may ultimately be to fire the unhappy camper, there are some other things you can try before it gets to that to create workplace harmony.

“It can be hugely destructive to the company,” if an employee is constantly negative, objects to everything and complains all the time, says Jeanne Yocum, founder of the blog Succeeding in Small Business. “This is particularly damaging in a workplace where you’re trying to bring about organizational change or to pursue innovation in terms of your products or services.”

According to management experts, the first place to start is to look within. Often times the morale sapper can actually be the boss or small business owner.

“In many instances what makes someone a successful entrepreneur can make them a bad manager,” says Chuck Fried, president and chief executive of TxMQ Inc., a technology staffing company. There are tons of situations in small businesses where employees’ bad attitudes are because of how the boss knowingly or unknowingly treated their workers, he says.

If it’s not the business owner that’s the problem the next step is to identify who the trouble maker is. An effective manager will already know this, but for many small business owners who are strapped for time, they may be out of touch with what’s going on at the office. Having an open door policy and actually following it can prevent problems from escalating. And if there is someone bringing down morale, it’s time to listen and figure out who it is.

“You’ve got to stay close to your people,” says Fried. “The only way you will know is if you have a good relationship with the people so they are comfortable coming to you.”

According to Mark Jaffe, president of executive search firm Wyatt & Jaffe, the first rule of management is understanding what motivates employees. Once you understand how to manage employees based on motivation you can identify the bad apple -- even if that person is a higher performer.

After identifying the morale sapper the business owner can then approach the person to find out what’s driving the bad attitude. In some instances it could be a situation at home, unhappiness with a work assignment or something else going on in the person’s life, while in other cases it could simply be the person’s disposition. “You can correct skills but you can’t correct personality traits and attitudes,” says Fried. “That’s what psychologists are for, it’s not the role of the boss.”

If the person’s behavior has changed seemingly overnight, then it may be worth it to try and talk to the employee and see if you can get them help, says Yocum. Another option is to isolate the person. Encourage the person to work at home or move him or her to an area that is less populated with co-workers.

If all else fails, it may be time to consider firing the employee. While employers worry they may get sued for firing someone simply because he or she has a bad attitude, Jaffe says it’s perfectly legal and within the rights of the business owner. You don’t have to tell the employee he or she is getting canned because of a bad attitude but you can say it’s due to organizational changes or a refocus of the business, says Jaffe.

“Most people now agree that if you have one person generating a lot of negative energy that infects the team, even a high performer, the popular wisdom is to fire them,” says Jaffe.

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