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Dealing With “Attitude” at Work, Part 3 – Helping Staff Help Themselves

In the first two posts in this series, I looked at the law around workplace attitudes which might stem from some form of disability. But what if your employee is fit and well in all respects bar being exceptionally painful to work with?

He may be relentlessly negative, make heavy weather out of every instruction, or just operate on a very short fuse, often perfectly civil but prone to detonation when colleagues overstep some clearly very important, but also absolutely invisible, line in their dealings with him. He is, in every sense, grit in the gearbox of your business. But without obvious performance or conduct concerns, what can you do?

Probably the first point is to ascertain whether the employee himself recognises the problems he is causing to his colleagues. This won’t be an easy conversation but it forces him to confront the problem head-on. He may demand to know who has complained and require detailed examples of where others have been offended. By the very nature of a poor attitude, however, individual manifestations of it seem trivial and raising them individually with the employee like a series of miniature disciplinary charges is just going to lead to a precipitous further decline in workplace relationships. So I would suggest in many cases that the attitude issue is put as a collective perception without the identification of either individual complainants or specific examples. This is the view people have on you. You don’t need details of individual complainants or examples to decide whether you recognise that as having any truth in it. If you do accept that there is something in it, you can do something about it. If you can’t/don’t do anything about it, the employer will need to do so instead.

That meeting will best take place in private and without any offer of a companion, so it is not disciplinary action and cannot be relied upon as a warning at a later stage. It is intended to be no more than a word to the wise.

This leaves the employee with some choices. Is he going to be wise or not? If secretly he recognises that this is how he might come across, then without admission and without formal disciplinary proceedings he can amend his behaviours and all will be well at minimum disruption and cost. Alternatively he may flatly deny those behaviours both to you and (more importantly) to himself. However, he will then have to address in his own head the question of why so many of his colleagues say otherwise. Or he may accept the behaviours in broad terms, but allege that they are the product of some treatment he has received from the employer or his colleagues. He withdrew from social interaction with them because they withdrew from such interaction with him, and they did it first, so there. He is being passive-aggressive because they are being aggressive-aggressive. He doesn’t trust them because they didn’t support him about something a long time ago which he has been unable to get over, and so on.

Of course, you can make such a response the subject of a formal grievance and disciplinary process, but this will have more oh yes you did and oh no I didn’t than the average Christmas panto and at the end of it you will find the same two things every time: first, that no one is completely blameless and second, that by conducting the effective artillery duel which those formal procedures encourage, you have converted a relationship which didn’t work very well into one which no longer works at all.

Therefore if you can catch your employee’s attitude issue early enough to avoid having to go through a formal process, why not try to mediate a resolution? Use the safe space created by that process to exchange some views about how each side’s conduct makes the other feel. It may be the first time your employee has heard this “from the heart”. Ideally this should be in non-aggressive terms – “You intimidate me” cries out to be whacked back over the net with added topspin, but “I feel intimidated by you” cannot so easily be argued with because it is about what someone feels, not what someone else did.

You might reasonably expect emotion and tears at such a mediation (dawning self-awareness can be very painful) so it won’t necessarily be an easy process. But at the end, if it works, you will have a newly functioning working relationship and not the cratered and smoking wreckage of what used to be the team spirit.

If it doesn’t work? More next week.

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 347

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About this Author

David Whincup Employment Attorney Squire Patton Boggs Law Firm
Partner

Following ten years at a Magic Circle firm, David has been Head of our London Employment practice since 1994. His expertise gained from twenty-five years as a specialist Employment Law practitioner covers a wide variety of employment-related issues, including in particular individual and team recruitment issues, policy and contract drafting, disciplinary and grievance procedures, individual and collective redundancies, the defence of employee discrimination and dismissal claims and other litigation, whistleblowing, employee health, data protection and matters surrounding...

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