Merge's Blog

What to do when a negative employee resorts to sabotage

Earlier this week, I brought up (once again) the oft-discussed subject of workplace negativity, specifically the various tactics that negative people use to create conflict and friction in the workplace.  Previously, I’ve discussed how defensiveness, stalling, disrespectfulness, ranting and gossip are common methods; but I promised that today I would discuss one final extreme tactic – sabotage.  Basically, sabotage is a desperate and final way for a negative person to try to regain power over a situation where he or she thinks they have lost control. Sabotage is usually used by someone who has tried a number of more subtle ways to get others to change a decision or direction of a program.  At this point, the saboteur is desperate or frightened about the future of the situation and is acting in a “last chance” frame of mind.  How do you get past this?  Well first, understand that usually, the person is missing or lacking some important information, and is operating from a position of incomplete knowledge.  Then, be aware: pay attention to other signals that a person is unhappy with a situation or decision.  Give the person the opportunity to share his fears and concerns, letting him know that you value his opinions.  By letting him feel heard, you may be able to avoid the sabotage altogether.  However, once the sabotage has taken place, be firm and clear about the inappropriateness of the situation.  If necessary, start managing this as a performance issue.  Set clear consequences for any future sabotaging behaviour.  It is absolutely critical that you be firm and direct.  If it makes sense, you can also set up a future communication plan with the person as a means of addressing her fears and concerns before she acts out on them.  But above all, deal promptly and decisively with the situation, and be firm and direct.

Have you faced a situation of sabotage from a negative person?  Would love to hear what actions you took (without giving away any confidential details of course).  It’s first-hand information like yours that will help us all learn to become better leaders, so I hope you’ll share.

P.S. Dealing with workplace negativity comes up a lot on my blog; because leaders are constantly asking what specific things they can do to avoid negativity or at least limit it from spreading.  Here are several previous blog posts that offer tools to deal with workplace negativity.


  • I have an employee who is sending emails to all of my other employees attempting to get them to make false HR complaints.

    I need some advice on how to proceed.

  • Yikes Gary, you have to take action! You can’t let this continue for a couple of reasons — first is the obvious, this kind of saboteur behaviour cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. Second, and just as important, this kind of behaviour is a huge DEMOTIVATOR to your other employees and if you don’t take action, you are actually doing a disservice to your remaining high-performing employees.

    May I suggest this process as an outline to follow:
    (1) Address the issue directly with the offending employee. Expect denials and perhaps even a belligerent attitude, but be persistent, you need to manage this.
    (2) Treat this as a performance issue. That means that you must handle this as a performance or behaviour problem, not an attitude problem. For specifics on the difference, read the article “Giving a Negative Review”. Go to my website, select Free Tools and access the Article Archives. This article will be filed under Tough Situation Tools.
    (3) Set clear consequences for lack of corrective behaviour.

    Pull in your HR professional early into this process as s/he can give you some wise counsel. If you’d like some perspectives or more advice about your specific situation, please drop me an email and I’d be happy to chat with you for about 10 minutes.

    Good luck, and remember, you MUST take action! This will not go away, it will only get worse if you don’t do something about it.

  • I was just describing this sort of problem with a couple of small business owners. Not surprisingly, they actually enjoyed hearing it, because it left them feeling better about their own small businesses, where I imagine they have not had the experience, or it they have, it is a thing of the past. It’s a reaction I often get when describing a problem I am experiencing of any kind; the other party usually takes joy and satisfaction in hearing about it. Makes you wonder. At any rate, what I have found is that oftentimes the negative employee has a drug or alcohol problem, they are full of resentment, and spite and malice aren’t far below the surface. Also, envy plays a role; which manifests itself as disrespect, because to the employees mind you don’t belong in the role you fill, and they are out to demonstrate that idea by treating you in a disrespectful manner. Because I have a small company, what I do is get rid of the perpetrator as soon as possible, before they get increasingly out of hand. Basically, they are upset at the notion that they are working for you, or anyone for that matter; they believe that in a fair world they would have it all, and you’d be working for them.


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