Sulky, resistant employee needs ultimatum – turn around poor behavior or lose job

Dear Joan:

I am having some major issues here at work.  I have been with this company for eight years.  I work in a satellite office.  For the first five years I worked in our satellite office, and then I went to work in our main office, which is about 45 minutes away for two years.  Well, last year I was offered a promotion to come back to the satellite office as office manager, which I accepted.  I supervise three employees here in the office.   

I am only having an issue with one employee.  This certain employee always comes in with a bad attitude. She is late for work everyday about five to ten minutes.  She never speaks to anyone.  If her co-workers try to assist her in anyway, she gets angry and blows up at them. Her co-workers feel that they can't speak to her without her getting angry. She has a very negative attitude about everything.  We work in a medical office and have about ten providers working here.  She has even been rude to the providers.  I really don't think she can handle stress.  This is a fast paced office.   

She has told me that she is the "only one" in this office that works very hard at her job and the others don't perform their job up to their potential.  This is not true.  I evaluate everyone's job performance and the other employees perform their job to the fullest.  I have had numerous talks with her regarding her attitude.  When I have these talks with her things will get better for a couple of weeks then they go right back to the way before.  I am at my wits end!   

This employee and I were great friends before she ever started working with this company.  Since I have been promoted to office manager, we haven't had a very good friendship because of this.   

Joan, am I doing anything that is causing her to be acting like this?  What can I do to make things better?  Her attitude is affecting everyone here in the office.  Everyone in the office feels like they are walking on egg shells when they come to work.  It is just a very unpleasant atmosphere.  Please help! 

Your sulky, resentful employee needs an ultimatum: she needs to turn her behavior around or lose her job. You are punishing the rest of the good workers by allowing her to arrive late, attack others, and be subjected to her constant negativity. Her rudeness to the providers is enough grounds alone to fire her. Why should they all walk on egg shells around this troublemaker?

Let me make some assumptions about what is going on, based upon your letter. It’s highly likely that she resents your promotion and feels that she is just as good or better than you are and she feels that she should have gotten the job. At the very least, she is highly resentful of your status over her. She probably hates swimming in the pool with the rest of the fish. I doubt anything you have done is contributing to this—your promotion was probably the defining factor. 

She has a glorified opinion of her contribution, and so she lashes out at her coworkers and puts them down, to make herself the martyr no one appreciates. When they try to help her, it infuriates her because she thinks it suggests that she is unable to do it, or they think she is incompetent.  

I suspect she is taking advantage of your former friendship. You seem to be cutting her some slack because you once liked her and perhaps she was once a good worker. You may be wringing your hands, wondering if you are the cause of this behavior. Shake off the guilt—it’s not about you; it’s about her. 

It is your responsibility to set standards and enforce them. Is it ok for everyone to come in late? If not, why is she able to? Is it ok to treat providers rudely? Why does she just keep getting her hand slapped? Would a new employee get away with that? How would you feel if one of your best workers told you she was quitting because she was sick and tired of this bitter person’s treatment of her? Would you do something then?  

The time for coaching is over. It’s time for a significant, sustained change in behavior. It’s tough love time. Here’s how it could sound. “Paula you and I have had this conversation many times but I think it’s only fair to tell you that this is the last time we will be having it. You are treating your coworkers disrespectfully—blowing up at them when they offer help, yelling at them for the slightest thing. They should not have to walk on egg shells around you. You have been rude to the providers. That is flat out unacceptable. Coming in late every day is unacceptable. 

You have been critical of your co-workers and have complained that you are the only one who works hard. That isn’t true. Their performance is not your responsibility—performance management is my job.   

In the past, we have discussed this and you have improved for a little while but you have always reverted back. I want to warn you in advance that you must turn your behavior around and sustain it. If you can’t do that, or don’t want to, you should find a different job because it will no longer be tolerated here. We used to be friends and I hope you won’t make me fire you but you will force my hand if you don’t change.” 

Then take a zero tolerance position. At first sign that she is slipping back, fire her. Your good employees will say, “What took you so long?”

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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