Managing the non-cooperative employee

If you’ve been managing for more than a minute, you’ve probably encountered the non-cooperative employee.

Just like the label suggests, the non-cooperative employee doesn’t cooperate. When approached, this worker gives most everyone a hard time before she’ll condescend to lend a hand, if ever.

What’s going on here?

What causes an employee to become uncooperative? Many things, but here are a few of the most common:

  • The employee resents the new regime. You’re the new boss, and the employee hates that. Perhaps she doesn’t approve of how the old boss was let go, or he was rejected for the job you now hold. Perhaps your personalities or value clash. Whatever the reason, this employee wishes you’d go away and isn’t shy about letting you know it.


  • The employee is angry about life and blames the job. Financial stress, a difficult marriage or other romantic relationship, trouble with the kids, and parent care-taking issues can all put an employee in a bad mood. While many employees will take pains to keep their home life from affecting work, some don’t or can’t. For these workers, their general dissatisfaction with life becomes everyone’s problem.


  • The employee wants to quit but feels trapped. This scenario has become all too common since the start of the Great Recession. Whether the employee has been looking for a job without success or finds himself unable or unwilling to even start the search, he or she has significant negative emotions about the job, and these feelings are leaking out all over the place.


  • The employee has a seriously overinflated sense of his or her importance. Whether pathological or merely annoying, this employee’s high opinion of herself means she does what she wants when she wants regardless of what you think about it.

What should you do?

No matter the cause of your employee’s uncooperative attitude, your responsibility is to address it without straying into off-limits territory while insisting the individual perform to standard.

When confronting the employee, stick to how his or her behavior is affecting work—which includes relationships with coworkers—and don’t focus on the person.

Be prepared with concrete examples, and know what you’d like the employee to do differently and what evidence you’ll accept as proof of the change. For example, if you’ve been receiving complaints from other employees and want those to stop, say so. Or, if your requests tend to be met with eye-rolling and protestations, and you want that to stop, say so.

Pick a time when you’re calm, and keep your talk with the employee on target and as brief as possible. Also, know beforehand how soon you expect to see a difference, and what you’re prepared to do if you don’t. You may not want to communicate all the consequences for non-conformance at this initial meeting, but it’s good to think a couple of steps ahead anyway.

Finally, give the employee a chance to ask questions and be open to listening to employee concerns, but don’t accept any excuses for the bad behavior. If appropriate, don’t hesitate to remind the employee of company benefits that may ease his or her situations, such as your flexibility in the workplace policy or your employee assistance program.

Uncooperative employees are a drag on your energy and your time, so it’s a mistake to simply let the behavior slide. Also know that your other employees (and maybe your boss) are looking at you and evaluating your worth as a leader by how you respond to the situation.