how to manage a negative, complaining employee

A reader writes: 

I have an employee who is very negative. For instance, when other departments make mistakes, she becomes intensely frustrated and immediately accuses them of not doing their jobs. She also keeps score; if we need to do something extra to help another department, she asks why we should help them when they can’t do X,Y,Z. And she speaks negatively about other departments to her own employees, and isn’t helpful to me in trying to improve things because she’s so focused on being angry.

She isn’t wrong when she complains about the failings of other departments. But they aren’t being malicious, it’s just a struggle to find common ground because we all have different needs. I feel like that’s a pretty common theme at work and I need her to tone down the negative a little.

Normally I’d talk specifics, I’d tell her how I need her to behave, I’d try to help her work through the process problems causing the errors, and I’d set up consequences for bad behavior. Thing is, there is no ultimate consequence because she’s not going to be let go. I can’t even begin to describe the dysfunction related to this, but it’s a fact, at least for now. Despite this, I have to speak to her about the problem, because I can’t do nothing. But she’s so buried in negativity that I don’t think she’s even capable of being objective anymore. Is there a way to talk to an employee like this?

Well, here’s the thing: You can try all sorts of strategies with her, but at the end of it all, you need to have the authority to set and enforce consequences. And if you don’t have that, you at least need her to think that you do. You haven’t explained why that’s not possible here, but without that authority, you can’t do your job, and whoever has put you in that position is cutting you off at the knees.

That said, you can try talking to her and see what happens. Try this:

* Be clear about your expectations and how she is falling short of them. Explain that the complaining has gotten out of hand, and that you need the person in her role to get along well with and be helpful to other departments and to minimize drama, not create it. And state clearly that the complaining needs to be dramatically scaled back (if not stopped completely) and replaced with a more helpful and accommodating approach to work and to her colleagues. Be sure to add that complaining to her own staff is 100% unacceptable — and so far afield from what a manager should do that she’s jeopardizing your confidence in her ability to manage.

* Be clear that the concern is a serious one. Your words and your tone should convey that this is a serious problem that will damage her career if it’s not fixed.

* Be clear that fixing this is a job requirement. Present this as a performance issue like anything else; it is part of her job to be pleasant and helpful to others, whether she’s feeling pleasant or not – and choosing not to is no more acceptable than deciding she’s not going to do some other crucial part of her job.

* Talk about consequences. I know you can’t let her go, but you should certainly be able to tell her that these issues will impact your assessment of her  performance (and thus her formal evaluation), her potential for raises, the types of assignments she gets, and her reputation in and outside the company.

But at the end of the day, if she doesn’t respond to this, you’ll need to talk to whoever is standing in the way of you letting her go. You need to explain the damage she’s causing – particularly to her own staff members, who are surely being impacted by this – and the opportunity cost of keeping her in the role without significant improvement.

{ 81 comments… read them below }

  1. Betsy

    I agree with everything Alison said, but I would also say that if you have an otherwise good employee who is getting to this stage of losing objectivity, you may be in danger of losing her.

    It might be worth working with her to try to identify the 2-3 top frustrations she has and seeing if there are ways you can work to mitigate them. Meeting her halfway may also help her to feel she’s being heard.

    1. iseeshiny

      That might be easier said than done if the issues are in a department OP doesn’t manage. Although maybe if OP could find a way to insulate the angry employee from the errors? There really is nothing so frustrating as feeling like you’re the only one who cares about getting things done properly, so I can see where she’s coming from.

      1. Briggs

        “There really is nothing so frustrating as feeling like you’re the only one who cares about getting things done properly”

        Yeah, I’d like to second this and see what kind of advice Allison has for the negative employee who feels this way? After a certain amount of time working in an environment where other people constantly drop the ball and don’t seem to face any consequences … or working in an environment that is inherently inefficient and your suggestions for fixing it seem go unheard … what do you do?

        I suspect this is one of those times where the answer is “Well, if you’ve tried everything you can think of, and you’re to the point where it’s making you bitter, it’s time to start job searching.” But I wonder: if the squeaky wheel is intentionally staying and is continuing to squeak for some reason, will the company eventually hear her? Or is it more likely that the company will turn a deaf ear, thereby ensuring that the concerns never get addressed?

        1. Briggs

          I want to clarify that the reason I’m asking about this is because the OP did acknowledge that the negative employee’s concerns were not unfounded. If an employee is being needlessly negative for petty reasons, that’s a different story, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.

        2. Anonymous

          +1

          It’s very frustrating to constantly have to correct mistakes of others and when it seems like you’re the only one that cares about getting things done properly.

          1. Jane

            That’s true, but there are whole jobs devoted to this concept. For example, in a customer service role, your job is to fix problems and mistakes. The same ones, over and over, day after day, forever. And I expect you to be equally pleasant each time you do it. If not, it’s not the job for you.

            1. Anonymous

              Agreed but I read the letter as Jane has to constantly correct errors that teapot design department is making on their TPS reports, for example. And in that case it may be something that teapot design department can easily correct with more training or guidance on preparing their reports. Or it may be that they simply don’t care and leave it up to someone else to correct their errors.

              If the staff just doesn’t care and figures “hey let Jane fix it. Not my problem” then I can see why Jane’s frustration has built up.

              Not to justify Jane’s frequent negativity but I can see where she’s coming from. It may not be the right job for her or it may be another department is unintentionally creating more work for her. The negativity should be addressed as it spreads and can drag down others though.

              1. Jessa

                That’s how I read it too. If the other departments are messing up Jane’s work then management needs to either A: fix the other department or B: fix Jane’s work schedule so that the other department isn’t constantly messing up her day.

                The constant negativity also needs to be addressed as in “We need to hear constructive commentary, it’s not appropriate to be talking about this down the line. If you have a problem bring it to x person.”

        3. Ruffingit

          In most cases, I don’t think the company eventually hears her. And, even if they were inclined to do so, she’s so squeaky that it becomes difficult to separate the real problem from the external noise. That is, she’s squeaking so constantly and her concerns so numerous that who knows what the real problems are at this point? When someone is this negative, this consistently in the workplace, people label them as the negative jerks and therefore their concerns go unheeded because their reputation is one of being negative. If you really want to be heard, then dialing back consistent negativity is a must. Figure out what your real issues are because when everything is a problem, nothing is a problem. That’s the way people start to see it – that you’re just a complainer and don’t need to be listened to.

        4. ExceptionToTheRule

          I struggled with this type of frustration for a very long time and it cost me a number of years as I tried to rebuild my reputation from my responses to those frustrations.

          What helped me get passed it was understanding two things. The first one is that the only person who I can control is me. That means that if I’m frustrated, the first place I have to start is with myself and understand why I’m reacting that way because my reaction is the only thing I can control.

          Doing that lead me to understanding number two: people all perform to different levels and they aren’t under-performing to my expectations expressly to piss me off. They’re under-performing for a wide variety of different reasons and none of them are personal, so why am I taking them personally and can I do anything to help them not be such a burden on me – ie: can I teach them to fish instead of giving them the fish that I caught?

          1. Elizabeth West

            Ugh, me too. I had to let stuff go and let it be late when I didn’t get what I needed to complete it. All I could do was prepare my part so it was ready to plug theirs in, and politely let them know that I was ready for it. If anyone asked me, I would just say, “I let Bob know I needed the fourth page, but he hasn’t given it to me yet.”

            Unfortunately, I had to stop caring in order to stop being negative. So I did, made an improvement, and had begun actively job seeking when I was laid off. I don’t advise the OP to tell that to the employee, however.

        5. Jen

          “After a certain amount of time working in an environment where other people constantly drop the ball and don’t seem to face any consequences … or working in an environment that is inherently inefficient and your suggestions for fixing it seem go unheard … what do you do?”

          I left. The company wasn’t about to change, so I voted with my feet.

          1. Betsy

            “I left. The company wasn’t about to change, so I voted with my feet.”

            This is why I suggested trying to meet her halfway, if possible. I have been in the place where an initial positive attitude gets ground down by my feeling that my productivity was being slowed enormously by inefficiencies in process or in other people, and I have started that slide into negativity that leads to leaving.

            OP says she’s not going to be fired. That could be because the OP doesn’t have the power to fire her, but it could also be that she’s enough of a performer that attitude isn’t going to cost her the job. If it’s the latter, you want to be careful that the frustrations that are driving the negativity aren’t going to drive her out the door if there’s any way to address them.

            1. fposte

              It sounded to me like it’s because it’s a workplace that doesn’t fire people, since it was linked to dysfunction. It’s also possible that the OP would be delighted if this person left if that’s the case.

        6. fposte

          It is more likely the company will never hear her. If all somebody does is complain, they aren’t a squeaky wheel, they are white noise. Their thoughts are not considered to be useful judgment but the background sound they make.

          The way for criticisms to change something is to join them to a proposed solution and to be equally ready to offer positive assessments of your co-workers (do you think this person thanks those other departments when they get stuff done early? I don’t). This person basically condemns everybody who makes mistakes as a slacker. That’s not somebody who’s making useful observations about organizational weak points.

          1. tcookson

            If all somebody does is complain, they aren’t a squeaky wheel, they are white noise.

            So true.

            I work with a person whose propensity to complain is taken so much as a given that nobody even bothers to feel insulted by a barbed remark from her; everybody knows that nobody else is lending it any credence, as we all have “complaint fatigue” where she’s concerned. You know the look where everyone is consciously not rolling their eyes? We exchange one of those and move right along.

        7. Natalie

          “But I wonder: if the squeaky wheel is intentionally staying and is continuing to squeak for some reason, will the company eventually hear her? Or is it more likely that the company will turn a deaf ear, thereby ensuring that the concerns never get addressed?”

          My experience has been that it doesn’t really matter if the company hears her – if she’s been squeaking for long enough she won’t know how to stop. At my company, three co-workers got the satisfaction of seeing things they had long talked about finally come to pass. And none of them were happy – they just found new things to complain about. One actually quit, and I’m fairly certain another one is only still here because she’s close to retirement and doesn’t care to find another job.

          1. tcookson

            if she’s been squeaking for long enough she won’t know how to stop

            I think this is the case with our squeaky wheel. Nobody’s listening anymore, so her complaints have turned from the specific to the general (“I’m always the last person to know anything”, “Not that anyone cares what I think”, etc.)

            For anything around here to get solved, it takes someone besides her to bring it up, because as long as it’s just another item on her litany, it’s not considered valid.

            1. Natalie

              “I’m always the last person to know anything”, “Not that anyone cares what I think”, etc.

              Ugh, the one of my co-workers who quit was like that. I used to feel for her when I was a brand new employee (first real job after college) but after a while I just couldn’t talk to her anymore.

              After listening to that for so long I had to the urge to just say “you’re right, no one DOES care what you think!” and run away cackling.

              1. Rana

                Yeah, I had an office mate who was like that, in one of my first jobs too. He had reasons for his bitterness, but it had reached the point where it was part of his personality, and it was really tiring sharing space with him. I don’t think I ever saw him happy about anything, ever, and kept wondering why, if things were so awful the way they were, he didn’t try to change something. I went from sympathy to contempt before too long, I’m afraid to say.

                1. Ruffingit

                  That’s what ends up happening with situations like this. You go from sympathy to contempt or to indifference, but either way it’s tough sharing space with people like that. They never get anything they want because while the message might be good, the delivery is horrible.

              2. tcookson

                “you’re right, no one DOES care what you think!” and run away cackling.

                This made me cackle out loud. When I finally crack at work, I’m going to do it just. like. this!

  2. Joey

    One other thing Id talk to her about- the impact her negativity is having on the workplace and her. Consequences allude to it but speak more to the future.

  3. tango

    I want to know if the OP truly feels the number of mistakes the other department makes is out of line? It doesn’t sound like – just the normal number of screw ups that can be expected. And if every other department is making mistakes but the OPs department isn’t, does that not sound a bit unrealistic? As if they are the perfect department swimming in a sea of incompency? Maybe the other departments feel like the OPs department is making mistakes also. And secondly just because one person considers it an “error” doesn’t make it so. I get reports from another department and depending on who produces them, sometimes I’ll have 12 fields or sometimes 7 fields or up to 20 fields of information given. As long as I have the basic info I need, do I care how many fields are filled out? No. But some might consider that a mistake if it’s not done the same way every time according to their wishes if they have perfectionist tendencies.

    1. Ruffingit

      This is a good point. It may be that the complainer’s perception is skewed about what actually is/isn’t good work. I’m with you, as long as you get what you need, who cares? And hell, even if you don’t get what you need, if you have no way to change that, you need to work on not caring about that either and instead just doing the best you can with what you’ve got. CYA so your boss knows you did all you could and move on. I spoke about that in my post below. Just letting go of worrying about sh!t you can’t change goes a long way in helping one’s attitude.

    2. iseeshiny

      Yes, I bet everyone sees this question through the lens of their own frustrations. Some people are fed up with their coworkers who are far too precious about unimportant things, other with the poor performers they have to deal with. It’s hard to say which this is without more information, although the fact that the OP admits that she’s not wrong makes me lean towards the latter.

    3. OP

      Basically the people in the other dept are data-illiterate. Our side is data-driven and they’re so messy with their entry that it constantly breaks things on our end. Breaks things in a way that affects the end customer. It’s extremely frustrating, and, believe me, we spend tons of time trying to work out processes that work for both teams. But essentially, these people just do not understand. They find new and unique ways to confuse the system.

      I understand the frustration. In fact, I’d wager that I understand it better because I’m dealing with this across several departments, not just the one of this specific employee. It sucks, and this employee is 100% right when she says that these mistakes are a waste of time and money. But everyone is trying to get better. She just can’t seem to see that despite me pointing it out to her.

      1. Tennessee

        no help on the negativity, but one strategy in this type of situation is to have people from the other (data-illiterate) department train for a couple of days on your side. they can then experience the problems they caused. not sure it will work in your case, but it’s a thought.

        1. Bea W

          It would also be helpful to have the worker go over to the other department and see first hand how things work over there. In my experience, there are often barriers that the people on the data end are totally unaware of. I work on the data side, and it was very insightful and helpful for me to spend time with the non-data literate people responsible for all the data collection and entry, seeing the attempts at putting processes into practice, observing how the technology we expected people to use was used in real world conditions, and understanding the limitations of the working environment really changed the way I approached my own role. The end result was two groups of people in very different functions working much better together and being less frustrated due to our increased understanding of the other.

          There was a talk at a conference I recently attended about a setting up an internal job shadowing program so that departments that are interconnected in this way can experience and learn what the other does and improve the working relationship. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and the data she presented from her limited sample looked positive and mirrored my own experience. People are so focused on what they have to do in their own silos, they can easily have no concept of how what they are doing impacts other departments.

      2. Bea W

        In my line of work, also data driven, I’d consider this a training issue for the other department. You can work-out processes until the cows come home, but if the people doing the work aren’t properly trained and trained well they will continue to do craptacular data entry and confound the system in new and imaginative ways. If your department understands the system very well and and understand what should be avoided that causes errors, it would be beneficial to work out not just a process, but a plan to identify issues that come up repeatedly and retrain people to use the system properly and avoid errors. Chances are the people doing the messy entry are just as frustrated as you all feel. You may be frustrated with having to correct mistakes, but I guarantee, they are also frustrated with making them and also probably with whatever system they have to use, and frustrated because they don’t understand how all this data works and what people do with it. A little education goes a long way. In addition to training, you could develop an easy-to-follow instruction manual for this other department and quick reference sheets.

        The other thing that stands out is that people are apparently able to mess up the system easily or enter messy data a bit too easily? This could be a limitation of the software itself or a limitation due to the way it is configured. If your department has any ability to recommend or implement changes from the technical side that will help prevent the entry of messy data to begin with, it’s worth looking at implementing changes like adding in validations or reworking the data entry screen/flow to be more user friendly.

        If your department doesn’t have the power to change those things, consider working with the department that is responsible for the problematic system to see if improvements can be made that would prevent some of the problems that keep cropping up.

        Your frustrated employee may have ideas about how to address these problems. Ask her what she would do it fix them. She might be willing or even happy to do work on it herself. Part of her frustration may be feeling like she’s powerless to do anything to fix it and has to wait for other people to step in.

      3. Clever Name

        Is there any way you can make the data-entry as “idiot proof” as possible? Of course, I’m not saying the people in other departments are idiots; “idiot proof” is my way of saying make something so simple or make it physically impossible for someone to make a mistake. Like if certain fields require a number only entry, make it impossible to input anything other than a number. Use drop-down menus to limit the number of choices. Make the data entry form such that it checks for errors before submittal and spits it back if there is one, and be explicit about where the error is and what type of entry should go there (like, “Error in Line 32. Entry must be a color name”.)

          1. Jessa

            The key words there are “proper process” so many, many companies have no idea what those words mean in practise.

            1. Bea W

              I worked for a company/Dept where “proper process” involved 27 pages of screen shots. I took one look at some of the revised processes and said “If someone doesn’t know how to click a link on the menu, we’ve got bigger problems.”

        1. ChristineSW

          Exactly. At a previous job, we had one pretty cool process where, if configured correctly, the system wouldn’t allow you to enter a specific measurement if it fell out of the specifications. For example, if the teapot spout is required to be between 3 and 5 inches and the technician made one that was measured 2.9 inches, I’d get a pop-up indicating that this number was out of range, and I’d have to go back and let the technicians know. No, it doesn’t prevent pure data entry errors (I type 3.4 instead of 3.7, but it’s not caught b/c it’s still in range), but I liked that it greatly reduced any chance of improperly made products being sent out.

      4. EngineerGirl

        I have to ask this OP – are the mistakes and the problems doing the following:
        a) Causing the employee to work overtime to compensate for the failures of others?
        b) Impacting the employees duties so that she can’t take on other (better) tasks?

        Because if either is true, then the majority of the problem is with YOU as a manager. As a manager, your duty is to ensure that data inputs from other groups are in the right format. You need to be rejecting inproper data and be sending it back to the originating department. You should never expect your employee to make major sacrifices (like working OT) to compensate for the failures of others. Alison is correct in that you need to have a behaviors discussion, but as the manager you need to address the root cause of the issue.

        1. Bea W

          Sending it back to the originating dept is key. If you fix the mistakes yourself, the person who made them in the first place will not learn the mistake they made and how to fix it and will keep repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again.

        2. Jane

          OP must make sure data is being entered properly. Here’s the thing though, when you don’t have authority over another department and upper management won’t demand improvement you’re faced with accepting the status quo. Even if you disagree, it is the reality. Let’s go one step further into the philosophical argument here. If the owner of a company decides for whatever reason that they don’t want to demand improvement from team A, and team B needs to work overtime to pick up the slack, that’s their prerogative. It may be crazy, but it’s the reality of the job. Employees need to decide if that’s something they can live with or not.

          1. EngineerGirl

            OP can’t make sure that the data is entered correctly becuase OP doesn’t have control of that. The other department manager does. But OP can make good data a criteria for acceptance by her department. OP could let the offending deparment’s manager know – “After 5 data entry mistakes we quit and send this document back to you. We will also let my boss know that we won’t be making our deadline because the inputs aren’t working”. OP needs to go to the boss and do what Alison has always suggested – raise this of a “how would you like me to address this problem?” issue.
            The problem is that bad data is impacting his team, he’s spending X hours in rework, and is on the verge of losing a good performing employee.

            Now Boss may tell OP to deal with it. In which case OP needs to go to complaining employee and let her know that nothing is going to be done. She needs to stop complaining or leave. And if she choses to leave OP will give her a great reference because her work is good.

            In other works, fish or cut line.

            But as stated before, OP should NEVER ask his reports to make long term sacrifices to compensate for others performance issues. That is the OPs part to manage.

      5. Trillian

        Whether she’s right or not, it doesn’t matter as far as the negativity is concerned – there are helpful and unhelpful ways to deal with chronic problems, and that one ain’t helpful. However, people don’t engage in persistent behaviours without a reward, no matter how obscure and twisted. What is her reward for complaining? Attention? People bending over backwards to try and make her happy? Feeling like the expert or the person with high standards? Getting to be the martyr. Remove it, if at all possible, and then find a reward for not complaining.

        1. fposte

          I like the way you’re thinking here. I will say that complaining can be its own reward, in that it’s a self-confirming narrative of how hard done by she is, but if the OP can find a way to break up the “poor me” itch-scratching and get satisfaction a different way that would be excellent.

  4. Ruffingit

    Over the years, I have found that as a general rule, it’s better to bring a positive attitude to the office as much as possible. Sure, there may be things that cause you to want to stab someone in the eye with a fork, but let it go. Really, just let it go that another department is dysfunctional or disorganized or whatever. It really, really doesn’t matter in the end. Do your job to the best of your ability and let go of what can’t be changed. Complaining about another department’s inability to get their act together does nothing to change things. It’s fine to vent with friends or whatever after work for a few minutes, but to be so consistently negative at work gets you nothing except your manager writing to AAM to ask how to deal with you. Seriously, it’s OK that other departments aren’t up to snuff, it’s just not your problem. Unless you own the company and can effect some real change, let it go and lower your blood pressure.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes, absolutely. And if it gets to the point where you can’t let it go and it’s sucking all the joy out of your work, then you need to change jobs.

  5. Seal

    OP – you mention that your employee isn’t wrong about the failings of other departments. Has you tried asking her directly for suggestions on how to improve the situation or solve the problem? Redirecting her energies into finding solutions and acting on them may go a long way towards improving her attitude.

    Also, make sure you are actually listening to what she’s complaining about before writing her off as a negative whiner. Ignoring and/or not acting on a legitimate complaint or concern because it’s coming from her is bad management.

    1. Frieda

      Seconded. There is a big difference between complaining just for the sake of complaining and pointing out problems that exist and then trying to either solve those problems or find ways to accept that they won’t change and work around them.

    2. OP

      I have asked for suggestions and we’ve even implemented some. I agree with you on the redirect, but I can’t implement everything she comes up. Then she ends up feeling like no one is listening to her suggestions. It’s a never-ending cycle.
      In response to your second point … sometimes even though an employee has a legitimate complaint, it isn’t fixable. For example, there are better data management systems out there that would save me a lot of frustration. But our company can’t afford one. It’s cheaper for me to fix the problems and that’s the reality of my job. There are sucky parts to every job. I’m not a therapist. I can’t spend several hours each week talking her down from the ledge.

      1. Bea W

        Actually all the time fixing these issues and the inefficiency it is causing are probably costing them more money (and other things) over time than the upfront cost to make improvements. It’s frustrating when companies can’t see the big picture.

        Assuming worst case scenario, you can’t change anything at all with the way your system works, there could be other reporting and analysis solutions that can be implemented on your end to help catch bad data before it gets out of control or messes something up in a worse way.

        It’s not your job to be her therapist. If she finds it that intolerable and feels it is interfering too much with her doing her job in the way she feels she can best do it, it might be time for her to consider moving on. It would be better for her, and better for everyone else. Chronic negativity only adds more frustration to an already frustrating problem.

      2. Not So NewReader

        “There are sucky parts to every job. I’m not a therapist. I can’t spend several hours each week talking her down from the ledge.”

        I LOVE this. Dress it up in a pretty outfit and use it. It could sound like this “Maggie, the job is what it is. It was like this two years ago and we have no reason to believe it will be any different three years from now. You are looking for something that is not there and may not ever be. We work under difficult circumstances because of X, Y and Z. This is the job. Meanwhile your steady stream of negative comments is making it harder. We know the pitfalls and we are all in the same boat together. Everyone here finds coping tools, I want you to think about what types of coping tools you will use. Negative commentary can become a habit. What will you do so this does not become a habit for you?”

        I am not surprised that the other department has difficulty and probably they will continue to have difficulty. But I would be my last chocolate donut that every single one of them knows Maggie routinely badmouths them on a daily basis. This can almost work into a game- “Let’s see who can get Maggie the most ticked off today!”
        Or they could have collectively decided that when they do try Maggie runs them down anyway so why bother trying?

        Maybe this is harsh- but the world is so crazy, I tend to think if you are not part of the solutions then you are part of the problems. No one stands on the side lines any more. Superficially, Maggie seems to be offering solutions. But it sounds to me like she has ten negative comments for every one solution she offers. I have fallen for this illusion before. I thought the person was helpful but reality is they are not helpful.

        I think barest minimum you can say to Maggie “Every time you bring me a complaint I want you to bring a workable solution to match. If you do not have a workable solution, then I do not have time to listen.”
        I think that others have put their foot down with her and you are one of the few people left that still listen to her. This is why she says no one listens to her.
        You could also offer “You have worked here how long and this surprises you? Maggie, this is the job we have until something better comes along. We have to make the best of it. We all need to eat.”

  6. Jen

    One of my ex-coworkers is very negative nowadays. She’s right about some of the things and she over-reacts on others… and I think it’s gone too far to fix. I saw myself getting more negative by the day, so I found another job; for various reasons, she doesn’t want to job-search right now. I don’t think there’s anything her boss could do to fix this situation – in my opinion, in a lot of cases the only solution is to get a new start, at a new company.

    Also, working late and *not* having someone to echo your negativity back at you is much less unpleasant than working late and having a bitchfest! (It’s 7.40 PM here and I’m going to go home much calmer than I would have in my previous job.)

  7. Lily in NYC

    I’ve been at my current job for 10 years. Until recently, I sat next to two of the most negative people I have ever met. One of them was very smart but refused to attend meetings, got in trouble for random stupid stuff, tried to download porn on the work computer, and then complained constantly about not getting promoted. Dude, just being smart is not enough! The other one was a crabby old lady that is just never happy no matter what. Everyone coddles her and does her work for her yet she still bitches. It was so draining and I ended up starting to have negative feelings towards the company as well just because of the constant bad-mouthing they did.

    Thank god my company did some reorganizing after a new president came and I got moved to a different dept – it’s like night and day . Everyone here works as a team and gets along great. Our boss is a fabulous manager who is also a mensch in general. Every negative feeling I had is long gone and I love this place again. I went from dreading coming in every day to walking in the door with a smile on my face.
    Long story short – this is an example of how negative employees bring everyone down with them.

  8. Stephen

    Call the employee in for a chat and tell her that she’s not liked and should look for work elsewhere.

    1. Ruffingit

      So glad I was done with my tea when I read that, otherwise it would have come out my nose and been all over the keyboard. Too funny, thanks for the laugh!

  9. A-cita

    This sounds like I could have been the writer letter, except in my case, the extremely negative colleague has no reports (thank goodness) but treats everyone else like they are her reports (not good) and is needlessly negative and angry (where the OP here admits some of her colleagues complaints are not unfounded, it’s not the case in my situation). And not only does she complain, but she’s extremely rude and nasty to others for no reason (reacts in harsh ways to regular every day things). She talks all the time about quitting but hasn’t yet. She’s not being managed because her supervisors have no authority over her (and she knows it) and I think they’re all just waiting for her to quit.

    (p.s., I’ve shortened my user name to A-cita now to remain anonymous since I’m recommending this blog to everyone I know now. But y’all know who I am. :)

    1. khilde

      I’ve been thinking of doing somethign similar and keeping my gravatar. I have recommended this site to tons of people and I (stupidly?) have shared pretty much all the general identifying data about myself and it would be easy for someone to piece it together. I’m not a regular legend that some of you are but I do consider myself part of League of Regular Commenters so didn’t know if that would screw it all up. Glad you said something A-cita, because it is nice to read the posts from the regular contributors.

      1. A-cita

        Well, I’m not as regular as I used to be, but I think it’s important for folks to know there aren’t actually two over-opinionated blow hards on here. :)

        But yeah, pretty much my situation–way too much identifying info. But how was I to know that recommending AAM was such a nice, passive aggressive way to tell colleagues to cut it out? :)

      2. Jen

        I had been considering changing my e-mail address (and my gravatar with it), because my pink Kenny is pretty recognizable and I’ve been using it for many, many years on Romanian blogs. But I can’t decide on another, so it’s staying, for now.

  10. Mike C.

    Maybe this is because I work in QC/QA, but how bad of errors are we talking about? Are they repeated? Do they reduce the safety of workers or customers? The OP said that these errors are real, so why in the heck aren’t things getting fixed?

    The other thing I need to ask is, what sort of ways are you letting this employee improve processes? “Put up or shut up” is often a great way to channel negative energy into positive results. It doesn’t matter if it’s different departments – unless you’re working for Sears* – you’re still working for the same company.

    Finally, your “keeping score” is my “gathering data to measure the magnitude of the problem”. How else can improvements be made and evaluated if you don’t have a baseline measurement?

    *Sears had a plan over the past few years where departments competed against each other. It worked as well as you imagine it did.

    1. fposte

      The kind of keeping score the OP mentions is different from documenting problems, though. This is bad-relationship keeping score, the bean-counting where you’ll only take out the garbage if he empties the dishwasher. It’s death to collaboration, because that’s not how collaboration works; it’s also usually a sign, both in a relationship and a workplace, of somebody who’s no longer crediting the good things done by the partner.

      And there really is a difference between somebody who’s willing to stick their neck out and address problems and somebody who’s just kvetching all the time. Even if the unit’s work is bad, it doesn’t justify being the latter, because that’s becoming part of the problem. Again, in relationship terms, it’s sulking and contempt rather than either addressing the problems directly or acknowledging that you can’t live with them and moving on.

  11. Design-in-Dutchess

    Or she could be a negative person, plain & simple. Glass is always half empty. I have a sister who is like this. It is exhausting to listen to constant complaints, constant negativity, constant mountains-out of molehills whining.

    Could everyone else in the company REALLY be doing so badly at their job? Is she the sole person keeping the place afloat?

    1. tcookson

      We did a StrengthsQuest retreat at work, and one of my co-workers top 5 was “Positivity”, and it is so true of her.

      One thing I learned that she does is, before a big event at work, whereas I might focus on keeping things from going wrong, she will intentionally “rev up” her naturally positive attitude by listening to music and visualizing positive, event-related scenarios.

      She is an example of how, while a negative person can bring the people around them down, a positive person can uplift everyone. The work seems lighter, somehow, with someone around who believes that everything’s going to be great!

  12. Tara T.

    I agree with Bea W.: “If she finds it that intolerable and feels it is interfering too much with her doing her job in the way she feels she can best do it, it might be time for her to consider moving on. It would be better for her, and better for everyone else. Chronic negativity only adds more frustration to an already frustrating problem.” Unfortunately, a lot of people who are unhappy in their jobs wait until they are thrown out and then it is too late. It would have been better for them to quietly look for a different job, and then give notice.

  13. ChristineSW

    Ahh having negativity around you sucks all the joy out of you, no matter what the situation is. But in a way, I shouldn’t talk because I’ve had the habit of letting myself get sucked into the negativity. Maybe not so much nowadays, but definitely at my previous jobs. OP, I hope you’re able to get this sorted out because negativity, in my experience, can be pretty contagious. Even if you yourself don’t become negative, it just makes the overall atmosphere unpleasant.

  14. Anonymous

    I have this exact same problem, but with a coworker (on another team) that consistently makes false (or wildly over-the-top) accusations around the office about both work tasks and personal interactions. Management is aware, but loathe to address this with her, and the end result is that she recruits people to join her team of gossippers in her attempt to balkanize the office. Those of us in her crosshairs do our best to avoid her and not take anything she does personally, but it can be demoralizing to see the behavior go on. Might anyone have advice on a negative, snarky cowworker?

    1. Windchime

      Why, oh why, does management always seem reluctant to address these types of behaviors? It’s so annoying!

    2. Cassie

      Don’t have any advice, unfortunately. We have a similar staffer except she’s a supervisor – I wish I could empower my coworkers to speak up when she crosses the line. But (naturally) they retreat because who really wants to deal with crazy when they don’t need to?

      Management has had a few “general” talks with her where they hint at the issues. But they aren’t clear/specific, and she has no idea what the problem is. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

  15. Anon Z

    Anonymous & Windchime,
    I came across this situation. The whiner has a strong backer! That’s why she can behave this way.

    Alison, isn’t there a cause-and-effect kind of thingy? Could it be the boss who wrote in to you has been doing a lot of unproductive things to cause negativity to his own staff – the manager? The boss could have not much backing in the office or could not play politics well in office to move the work back to the intended departments? Hence, his staff had pent-up frustrations leading to negativity? For his staff, the manager that is , probably felt such work meant not advancing professionally …

  16. Lainie

    I had one like that. I finally told her she could only complain about an issue if she had a suggestion for how to fix it. It forced her to be part of the solution, which allowed her to stop being the problem. She actually came up with several good ideas and some of her solutions were implemented. Eventually, she quit coming to me with complaints and started discussing possible solutions with her co-workers which ended up creating a pretty strong team.

  17. Heyheyhey

    It could be smoke in mirrors and be her own self-deception where she is constantly making everyone aware of other people taking the attention away from her. My vast experience (except in some small/newer companies) this seems to ALWAYS be the case. If that department is failing, normally somebody, somewhere is always aware of their shortcomings and SHOULD have already been looking for ways to combat the issues. Since that has normally been the case, I would be open about your plans (even if it is I am trying to find ways to fix the issues) and ask to please cope with the issues until they are resolved. If there is continuation, you must remind her that we have talked about this in the recent past and repeat until it comes to you putting your foot down and telling her I do not want to have this conversation again. MAKE A PAPER TRAIL WITH EVERY CONVERSATION AND HAVE PATIENCE.

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