The Difficult Employee: Neutralize Your Negative Nellie

Okay, so maybe their name isn’t Nellie or Ned. But the fact is that most employees can easily name that one person that seems to be negative about everything — from project timelines to the people he/she has to work with. 

While everyone gets frustrated at times in the workplace, a proverbially pessimistic employee’s attitude can spread like a cancer among co-workers and must be dealt with. But how? 

First, you need to understand that while it’s not your job to try and change someone’s overall disposition, there are ways to reign in the behavior of an employee with an ornery attitude. Here are five strategies to nip negativity in the bud: 

  1. Communicate core values.
    Be clear with your employees what the core values are for your company, such as trust and respect, commitment to excellence, and positive team players. Post them where they are visible, and always go back to them when in conversations with a negative employee. 
  1. Don’t engage emotionally with a negativist.
    While it’s fine to listen to an employee’s complaints, keep the conversation short — you are only adding fuel to the toxic fire if you let them rant too much. Remember that negative people get their energy from complaining — be clear that you hear them, but stay results-focused and state in a matter-of-fact way that you want to work with them to resolve the issue. 
  1. Coach employees toward positive change.
    According to Mack Munroe, President and CEO of Hired Guns Consulting, employees can be coached to figure out solutions to their problems, which can significantly cut down on complaining. His advice is to follow a process where you let employees come up with their own solutions to a perceived problem, then commit to specific action and follow it through. 
  1. Keep your expectations high.
    While it’s tempting to avoid employees with a negative attitude, the best way to overcome negativity is to maintain high expectations. Sometimes an employee’s negativity is a result of lack of challenge or responsibility in their job. As much as possible, create an environment where employees can be challenged and thrive. 
  1. Address concerns of co-workers.
    It’s important to acknowledge the feelings of co-workers that have to deal with a negative employee. Let them know that you want to understand the relationship dynamics, so you can work together to change the energy to be more positive and productive. 

Finally, as the saying goes, “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” The best way to avoid negativity among your employees is to hire positive people to begin with. In the interview process, ask candidates questions about previous difficulties in their career or how they handled an adverse situation. Look for candidates who show resilience in overcoming obstacles, rather than blaming a person or situation. Just as pessimistic people can be business culture killers, optimistic and positive employees can make your business environment thrive. 


My Partner Relations team and I work with Human Resource directors, business owners and professionals in a variety of industries to provide on-site money management training for employees. While we can’t guarantee that our free seminars will put a smile on Negative Nellie’s face, we know that everyone benefits from being MoneyWiser. Learn more about our Lunch and Learn programs and how we can benefit your employees.

Sign up for a free Lunch and Learn Seminar.

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About Author

Maria Porto
Maria Porto

Maria Porto is Hanscom FCU's assistant vice president of partner relations. She may be reached at

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