5 Problem Workers Who Can Destroy Office Morale

If you've got "Negative Nellies" or "Incompetent Sweethearts" working for you, your business could be in trouble. Learn how to deal with insidious workplace behavior.
September 17, 2013

Are problem employees hampering your small business’s growth? Some problems can be easily spotted during a job interview, so you can avoid hiring the person in the first place. Others (like stealing) are so egregious, you can quickly fire the employee, thus eliminating the problem—and the person. But the behavior of most problem employees is more insidious—with the problematic conduct becoming apparent only after the employee has been with you for a while.

Many small-business owners dislike conflict, so they settle for living with problem employees and working around their bad behaviors. But one bad apple does spoil the whole bunch. And if you’re seen as ignoring problem workers, others will begin to behave badly as well.

So how do you stop problem behaviors before they stop your business? Here are five of the most common problem employees and how to handle them. (Note: Problem employees come in both genders, but I use “he” or “she” below to avoid awkward phrasing.)

Negative Nelly

Debbie Downer might have been funny on Saturday Night Live, but when she works for you, it’s no laughing matter. Complaining about her workload and making snide comments, Negative Nelly might get chuckles at first, but negativity can spread rapidly and infect other employees who were happy working for you—until Nelly started sharing her sour grapes.

How to handle: Sometimes the Nellies don’t even realize they’re being negative. Since negative people tend to get defensive easily, it’s important to have some concrete evidence before you talk to them. Keep track of the negative comments and any visible effects they have on others. When you’ve got several examples, sit down and have an honest talk with Nelly. Share some of the comments she’s made and explain how they've affected others in the office. Explain how important it is to keep morale up and how her negativity hurts those efforts. You’ll quickly discover whether Nelly is just someone who makes negative comments without thinking or is truly unhappy with work. If it's the former, your insights will probably shock her, and you can set goals for her to think before she speaks and become a more positive force on the team. If it's the latter, you may have to consider letting her go.


Like that kid in class who never raised his hand except to ask, “Will this be on the test?” the Coaster goes through life doing just enough to get by but not enough to stand out. You can’t really reprimand him because he’s not doing anything wrong, but you can’t praise him for going above and beyond either. Over time, the Coaster saps other employees' morale, especially if they see him getting raises and promotions. Got an office full of Coasters? Your business is going nowhere fast. Small businesses on tight budgets can’t afford even one.

How to handle: Sometimes Coasters just need a little nudge to start speeding along. Or they’re simply bored. Call your Coaster in, and address the problem honestly. Tell him, “You seem to be coasting. Do you like your job? Is there something else here you’d rather be doing? What do you see yourself doing three years from now?” Hopefully, you’ll get some engagement. If not, let the Coaster know you really need more than this from employees and maybe your company isn't a good fit for him. If the Coaster swears he’ll do better, develop a plan to get him there by setting goals that stretch him enough to be challenging. As the Coaster grows, your business will, too.

Office Gossip

Let’s be real: Everybody gossips—even you. Some gossip is good, adding spark to the workday and spreading useful company news. But too much poisons your business and pits employees against one another. All too often, it can be traced back to one source: the Office Gossip.

How to Handle: Today more than ever, gossip can explode through social media and hurt your business’s reputation in the wider world. Call the Office Gossip in and explain why and how excessive gossip is hurting morale—and your company. Then call a company-wide meeting to let the team know you won’t tolerate gossip and set consequences for loose lips. Monitor what’s being said about your business on social media, and keep listening to the buzz around the office. 

Incompetent Sweetheart

The Incompetent Sweetheart is the nicest person you’ll ever meet. Earnest and friendly, he spends his spare time helping old ladies across the street and teaching Boy Scouts how to tie square knots. The only problem is, he’s just not that good at his job. In fact, he’s incompetent. No matter how many times you explain the duties or retrain him, he keeps doing it wrong (but with such a winning smile on his face).  

How to handle: When it comes to employees, I truly believe attitude is more important than skills, so don’t give up on the Incompetent Sweetheart just yet. Because he’s so nice, you probably find it extra-hard to be honest with him about the problems with his work. Don’t sugarcoat it: Be candid in explaining what needs to improve and what the consequences will be if it doesn’t. Still have a problem? Sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding the right fit. If possible, try the person out in other positions in the company. The Sweetheart who’s incompetent at packing orders might shine at dealing with customer complaints by phone.


Have you ever wrangled a roomful of 5-year-olds? You’ll feel like you have after dealing with the Kindergartner. This employee can’t get along with others, so she comes whining to her manager (or you) to deal with every conflict, real or perceived. Did someone else get a nicer office chair than hers or look at her cross-eyed? You’re going to hear about it.

How to handle: You've got to act fast to nip this in the bud, or you’ll waste hours each week refereeing playground fights. As with actual kindergarteners, if there’s an ongoing feud between two employees, sometimes a simple strategy like separating them works best. If that feels too much like giving in, call them both into your office and tell them you expect them to handle disagreements like adults. Set parameters as to what types of conflicts are worth getting the boss involved and which you expect them to deal with on their own. To make sure the Kindergartner doesn’t feel she’s being harassed or that you’re ignoring complaints, remind both parties that you have a policy against harassment (you do, right?) and have her immediate supervisor keep an eye on the situation.

Notice a common thread in all these tactics? When it comes to changing employee behavior, honesty is the best policy. Many business owners hide their heads in the sand when conflict arises, but if you address the issue openly and honestly, you’ll get much better results.

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