Manager and employee in performance discussion

What comes to mind when you hear the following statements?

“He’s just lazy.”

“She has a bad attitude.”

“It’s obvious she doesn’t care or she would try harder.”

“He does just enough to squeak by.”

If you’re thinking of a work situation, your initial reaction might be that they should be fired. If you’re thinking of the home front, maybe you believe they need a swift verbal kick to motivate them. In both cases, the frustration that comes from a negative attitude in your midst is tremendous. Bad attitudes are contagious and they can be difficult to navigate.

But, can you legally terminate someone for having a bad attitude? If you’re not sure, you’re not alone.

Some states have legislation in place that makes it illegal to fire someone on the basis of attitude. However, according to an article by Tim Gould, in HRMorning,* the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2014, in favor of the employer in a wrongful termination suit. The NLRB substantiated the decision, in part, by referencing the company handbook, which banned insubordination and disrespect, including a negative attitude that is disruptive to staff or negatively impacts customers.

But even the NLRB doesn’t rule consistently on issues relating to firing for attitude. In a 2012 case, the NLRB ruled for the employee and struck down a case based on a similar workplace guideline outlined in the employee handbook.

The Bottom Line for Managers

The responsibility for changing attitude lies solely with each of us. Our Atana post entitled Accentuate the POSITIVE, provides a tool for anyone who wishes to increase positivity, change their attitude and their thinking, and reap the benefits of doing so.

But, as a manager, what can you do with a staff member whose negative attitude is bringing down the whole team?

The answer is simple: you focus on performance.

You can’t see an attitude. But, you can see the behaviors that come from the attitude. Focus on those.

Consider this example:

Sally is a food server whose customer service is inconsistent. At times, she is attentive and friendly. Other times, she does just the basics. When you speak with her about it, she explains that people who bring in a coupon tend to tip poorly so she spends less time with them. What do you do?

a) Explain that she's making generalizations about people that aren't necessarily true.

b) Explain that she is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her service is poor so her tips will be poor.

c) Explain that you expect her to provide all tables with the same exemplary service.

Even if choices “a” and “b” are valid, they focus on attitude. Choice “c,” on the other hand defines the expectation and performance standard. If necessary, you could also define the behaviors to get there.

If Sally changes her behaviors and provides exemplary service to every table she serves, including to customers who use a coupon, you will have helped her improve her performance. But, Sally may still believe that discount seekers always tip poorly. She changed her behaviors but not her attitude. As long as her attitude does not negatively impact her behaviors and performance, what she thinks about coupon customers doesn’t matter.

Your Role in the Performance Improvement Process

A performance improvement discussion that is focused on behaviors is observable and measurable. If the employee does not improve, then you can decide how to proceed with discipline, up to and including termination.

It’s important to realize that you can help your employees with their journey to improve, but it’s up to them to change their behavior. A performance improvement process that is specific, focuses on behavior, and outlines consequences if improvement doesn’t occur, involves the employee and leaves little room for surprises if things don’t work out.

Although working together to help your employee succeed is your job, taking responsibility for your employee’s success is not. You can alleviate any reason for poor performance that you can control. And, you can guide your employee through a performance improvement process.

But, the rest is up to your employee.