How to Deal With Negative Coworkers...Without Losing Your Cool
Kesi Stribling, Kesi@KSGSC.com
The Strategist Online Magazine
March 2005 Edition
Let’s face it. Life in the workplace is hard enough. With looming project deadlines, lengthy work schedules, and
constant demands, the last thing employees - or employers - need is to deal with negative coworkers, who can ruin the
most positive person’s day.
You know who they are and you try to avoid them. You will even walk up three flights of stairs to dodge their negative
comments. They are your coworkers who never have anything positive to say about the company or staff, and often
make it difficult to work with them.
The Negative Worker Defined
According to Gary S. Topchik, author of Managing Workplace Negativity, there are several types of negative people.
Of the fourteen characteristics profiled in Topchik’s book, five are more commonly identified: The Locomotives, The
Perfectionists, Ice People/Resisters, The Scapegoaters, and The Rumormongers.
1. The Locomotives: Steam-roll over people in the office
2. The Perfectionists: Nothing is ever done right
3. Ice People/Resisters: Do not like change
4. Scapegoaters: Don’t take the blame for their mistakes
5. Rumormongers: Spread rumors that aren’t necessarily true
Meera Collins (interviewees’ names have been changed), who works for a government agency, is familiar with The
Locomotive, who often uses intimidation as a negative reinforcement. Collins said that one of her managers has steam-
rolled over her at times. One example of her manager’s negative behavior occurred when Collins worked on a project
and needed the manager’s input, and emailed him asking that the manager stop by her cubicle when he had a chance.
According to Collins, “He eventually called me to his desk to discuss the project and after we talked he said, ‘Just so
you know proper business etiquette, the subordinate should never ask the manager to come see them, the
subordinate should always come see the manager’.”
While Collins did not confront the manager about his comments, she surmises that employees should approach the
offending employee about his or her behavior. Collins says the reason she did not address the manager’s comments
was because she was “not sure what types of backlash from them,” she would receive.
Another type of negative individual, not listed on Topchik’s list is the sarcastic or outright offensive coworker.
A few months ago, Collins came back from vacation wearing braids in her hair. Collins says that she received positive
comments on her hairstyle, except for the remarks made by a manager who, according to Collins, said to another
coworker “Look we could go rope climbing, look at all those ropes in her hair.” The manager came up to her a few days
later while Collins was talking to a coworker and said, “You must really like hemp.”
“Needless to say, I now don’t have much to say to either of these managers,” intimates Collins, who still works at the
The impact negative employees have on the staff and company, managers and coworkers alike, can circumvent the
organization’s mission, day-to-day operations, and long-term goals.
Dr. Mahlene Duckett Lee, President and CEO of Philadelphia-based Divi Holding Group, concurs. She asserts that
negative employees “erode morale and disrupt intra and inter departmental communication.” Specializing in
organizational engineering, Lee often teaches companies how to deal with negative employees and avoid the impact
that they have on the company.
Individuals who constantly make negative comments often have “personal agendas, and are “not going to go away,”
according to Lee.
In addition to impacting employee morale, negative attitudes can also impact the bottom line financially. Departments in
which the employees exhibit negative behavior can cause staff to under-perform and avoid work assignments –
especially when the negative person is on the project team.
Alexis de Costa, who works at a financial institution in Philadelphia, has been dealing with a negative coworker, who I’ll
call Louis. Every day for the past six months, de Costa has listened to Louis complain about the company. For forty-
five minutes to an hour, de Costa says, “I have to hear him say he hates the job, the job has no growth, and how he’s
Louis, who exhibits a combination of many of the negative characteristics previously described, often complains about
“how stupid people are” at the company, and has even slammed down reports the size of four reams of copy paper,
thrown his pen on the desk, cursed the company, and abruptly left the office.
De Costa is the only employee to whom Louis’ complains. “I’m the only person he approaches,” she says. She figures
by the time others come into work, Louis has had his morning venting session. De Costa says that he’s even upbeat
after the daily tirade.
“I’ve tried not to talk to him,” de Costa continues, to no avail. When she attempts to ignore him, Louis walks into her
office, stands before her, and begins a barrage of negative comments about the company.
De Costa wonders if Louis is “mentally stable,” and hopes that he doesn’t resort to workplace violence to further
demonstrate his frustration.
How to Handle the Negative Coworker
Aside from avoiding the nay-saying employee, depending on the company climate and severity of the comments, Dr.
Lee states that the process for reporting the negative behavior can vary. For example, a unionized company has a
different process for handling union workers who demonstrate overtly negative behavior. For other employees,
management may decide to issue a written reprimand, or a more drastic measure would be to move the employee to a
Before the negativity permeates the work environment, Lee suggests that employees impacted by negative managers
or coworkers notify management in writing, to put the issue on the record and also protect the affected employees from
potential adverse impact in the future. For example, an employee who does not put the complaint in writing can give an
unspoken signal to the offender that the behavior is acceptable.
Gisele Perlman, who works at a nationally recognized financial services company in the Philadelphia area, recalls a
former employee the staff dubbed “Angry Advisor.” The employee was “negative all the time,” according to Perlman,
and constantly complained to other advisors and management.
“Angry Advisor” even enlisted the support of coworkers, who would bring up complaints during staff meetings with
His behavior “affected the advisors around him,” and eventually led to his demise at the financial services company –
he left after nine months. According to Perlman, people who are constantly negative at her place of business “weed
themselves out of the business.” She further states that in her line of work, negative employee behavior can be
especially detrimental. “Angry Advisor” eventually began complaining to clients, which could have had a serious impact
on the company’s finances.
The company has a Leadership Team in place that deals with various issues affecting employees, including negativity
in the workplace. With an emphasis on “emotional competence,” the team coaches employees on keeping their cool in
the workplace “regardless of what’s going on around” them.
Silencing the Negative Employee
Dr. Lee offers some solutions to dealing with negative employees, even before they influence their coworkers, or the
1. Study the entire organization: Does the company have policies or a system for handling negative employees? If
not, employees may think that it is okay to use negative comments to influence others, or disrupt business.
2. Keep lines of communication open: Being a manager, who is approachable can be the first step in preventing
wide-spread negativity in the department. If the manager proactively quells negative employees at the onslaught of the
behavior, chances are, the employee may stop being so negative.
3. Implement organizational initiatives about overtly negative staff prior to taking action against the negative
Whether the employee has caused major disruption or not, Lee asserts that negative workers “cannot be permitted to
taint the rest of the staff.”