By Kim Silvers, SPHR-CA

We recently received a draft policy from an employer asking if the following “basic rules” for new employees could be included in the onboarding package:

  • Show up when scheduled
  • Lose the attitude
  • Cooperate with fellow staff and managers
  • Do your job
  • Don’t lie
  • Don’t steal

I suspect all managers have spoken or thought these sentiments on many days. Although I suggested some of these could be worded in a more positive frame (“Tell the truth” is better received than “”Don’t lie”) I strongly urged him to drop the attitude reference.  Here’s why…

Attitude carries many connotations in our society. The official definition from a quick Google search:

      1. a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person’s behavior.  “She took a tough attitude toward other people’s indulgences.”
      2. a position of the body proper to or implying an action or mental state.  “The boy was standing in an attitude of despair, his chin sunk on his chest.”
      3. North American informal truculent or uncooperative behavior; a resentful or antagonistic manner.“I asked the waiter for a clean fork, and all I got was attitude.”

Occasionally I see “Attitude” listed as one of the rated criterion on performance appraisals. I’m never sure if the employer is referring to having a good one (that would be “good” according to my or the rater’s interpretation) or the negative one defined in the North American informal definition above. The challenge with calling out an employee for having an attitude (meaning having a poor attitude, I’ll have to assume) is that it doesn’t note specifics, is subject to broad interpretation, and would be very challenging to define in front of a judge.

When a manager calls me to complain about an employee’s attitude I often ask him to tell me exactly what the employee does that demonstrates this attitude thing? The response is often: “Well, he’s late for work, he doesn’t dress properly, he doesn’t look our customers in the eye, he doesn’t turn in reports on time, he rolls his eyes when I ask him to do something, and he doesn’t speak respectfully to our customers.” You get the picture. My response: “So why not just tell him what you just told me?” Ideally, the manager would give the employee specific direction as he’s learning the job, followed up with feedback as he progresses. Calling out the right behavior is a sure way to have it repeated. (“Thanks for taking care of that mess on aisle 6. I know it wasn’t pretty. We can avoid an injury as a result.”) Being more direct with the employee on the expectations and where he’s falling below the line would result in much better coaching and likely result in more appropriate behavior than saying something as nebulous as “lose the attitude.” It would also be much more defensible if the employee chose not to act appropriately and adverse action was taken.    

Unfortunately, some people do not have the same work ethic or standards as their boss. Sometimes that’s based on lack of experience or exposure to a stellar work environment. And sometimes people are just clueless as to the impact of their behavior. Employees will be better tooled and schooled if their managers are specific as to the expectations and the outcomes. And managers will live longer as a result of spending less time in court.

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