How to Handle a Negative Co-Worker

Your co-workers, Negative Nancy and her counterpart Negative Nelson, are walking down the hall. You try to hide. Too late. They’ve spotted you! You brace for a gripe session and hope it doesn’t last the lunch hour. How do you handle negative co-workers besides jumping into the broom closet? Here are some tips.

Determine if the Shoe Fits Permanently 

Assess whether you have a personality versus attitude problem on your hands. In our HR experience, we’ve found that personalities are permanent. Some people are just negative and suck the energy out of every environment. These are the, “She woke up and wanted to kick the dog rather than pet the dog” people. Attitudes however, can change with the environment. Employees may exhibit a temporary attitude due to multiple reasons, including a lack of understanding about their job, a lack of trust, or they may have experienced a series of negative occurrences like their coffee spilled, plus the car broke down, and they had an argument with their spouse.

Identify Legitimate Reasons

Listen carefully. There could be legitimate issues company-wide that Negative Nancy may have her pulse on. If she is a representation of the opinions of multiple people, you may have an opportunity to change the company as a whole for the good…if you desire.

Remove the Sounding Board

Perhaps you simply look empathetic. Take control and make yours an active versus passive role. The master of negative personalities will address, ignore, divert and/or delay. Pay Nancy or Nelson a compliment. Change the environment with, “Hey let’s go for a walk!” Ask the following questions, and put the responsibility back on them: “Are you just looking for someone to vent to? Do you want to explore solutions? How can I support you?”

Set boundaries

Take courage. Define your boundaries. If Nancy or Nelson wants to bend your ear, give them a time limit like “You have five minutes,” and after that time cease listening then require a solution. Explain how their negativity affects you, and that you all need to come to common ground about how to handle the venting sessions before hand. For those who send negative email, simply delete them and do not respond.

Seek Assistance

Negativity festers in the workplace. If you determine that Nancy and Nelson are that way on a permanent basis, ask HR for some help.

Rely on the stated values of your company. When people start complaining about the complainers, it’s time for action. You as an individual employee can make the difference.

Written by Jim Annis President/CEO of The Applied Companies, which provide HR solutions for today’s workplace. Celeste Johnson, Tom Miller, and Suzanne Chennault, Applied’s division directors, contributed to this article.