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How do I deal with a negative employee?

A step-by-step guide

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A veterinary practice manager writes:

I have a negative employee in my practice. She is a good vet tech, but she is very critical of everything in the practice, from equipment, to the condition of the building, to some clients and our processes.

Some of her criticism is valid, but I can tell that the frequency of her negative comments is bringing the entire team down. How do I talk to her? 

As you have already noticed, negative employees can bring down the morale of the entire team, so it’s important that we deal with them immediately. Many practice managers I have spoken with find this a difficult subject to broach because it relates to the employee’s “soft skills,” which can often appear harder to pinpoint and talk about.

The first thing we need to agree on is that this is an issue of poor performance, or “underperformance,” which means the employee is not performing to the expected standards. Granted, we’re not talking about her technical abilities, but performance encompasses a wide range of traits, skills and abilities.

With this in mind, you can follow a simple formula which is applicable to ALL areas of underperformance:

  • Before you speak to her about “meeting expected performance standards,” you need to be clear about what those standards are, and ensure she has been made aware of them.
  • Check your position descriptions, business principles or core values and performance review documents. Where do you talk about the necessity for all employees to exhibit teamwork and a positive attitude? What formal practice materials has this employee been exposed to?
  • If you have something tangible to “point to,” this conversation becomes a lot easier for both parties. It’s also less subjective, leaving no room for gray areas or misinterpretation.
  • Sit down with the employee and let her know that you would like to talk to her about an area of her performance. Tell her that you noticed she is frequently criticizing the practice, and you understand that there are areas of improvement. However, while her comments are probably coming from a good place, she comes across as negative.
  • Next, give her one or two specific examples. If you can draw on something that you have personally witnessed, rather than second-hand information, go with that. You don’t want to get into a ‘he-said-she-said’ discussion.
  • Let her respond, but don’t be swayed by excuses like “I was having a bad day” or “That’s not what I meant.” You’re going to explain to her exactly why negative comments are a problem next, so it doesn’t really matter why she made them.
  • If you haven’t found anything specific in your practice materials about a positive attitude as a performance requirement, you can link it to teamwork. The requirement to work as a team is almost in every position description.
  • You can say something like, “I know we have issues in the practice we need to address, but the way you bring them up, and who you speak to about the problems, can have a negative impact on people. No one likes to work in a negative environment; people want to be motivated, feel positive and uplifted. Your comments and your tone of voice can have the opposite effect. When your team members feel deflated and frustrated, it affects their day. As you know, teamwork is a key performance requirement in our practice. There are standards of teamwork we expect everyone to uphold.”
  • So by this point, you have given her specific examples, explained the effect her behavior is having on the rest of team, and linked that to an actual, documented performance expectation.
  • Give her a chance to respond and ask if she understands what you mean. It’s important to take a collaborative approach, so you can even use one of the examples and ask her how she would say essentially the same thing, but in a more positive manner.
  • You may need to coach her at this point about how to adopt a more positive communication style and body language. Keep checking in with her, to make sure she understands, and offer further support and training if you think she needs it. By now the discussion is very much a two-way process, she is more relaxed and sees that you want to help her improve.
  • Finally, it’s important to set a clear action plan and a date for review, to ensure there has been a change in behavior. Try saying something like, “Great, I’d like you to practice what we just talked about over the next two weeks in different scenarios. When you notice something you think isn’t working, I want you to think about what the problem is, and what a possible solution may be.”
  • You don’t want to discourage team members from speaking up about improvements required in the practice, innovation is the key to practice growth and the best ideas frequently come from people “in the trenches.” Encourage her to speak up, but in a positive, solution-driven manner.
  • I would end the conversation with this team member by saying, “I’d love to hear about some of the positive effects you are seeing when you take this approach with your ideas. Let’s talk again in two weeks and you can tell me how it went.”
  • All performance-related discussions should be documented, along with the action plan and review date, so remember to do this as well.
  • Your team member should walk away from this meeting feeling positive and empowered, and hopefully you’ll start to see some change in her communication style.
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