Reforming the Refuseniks

  1. Are you currently in the grip of employees who can’t see the good in anything?

  2. Are you being forced to spend your time at work with people who are so grumpy they’d give Victor Meldrew a run for his money?

  3. Do you find yourself having to manage the world’s most unhelpful person?

  4.  And do you have to suffer the constant whinging, moaning and mocking of employees who don’t support any idea unless it’s their own?

The really sad thing is that we go along with these people. We tolerate the office grouch, we side-line the misery-guts, and we try to avoid the complaining and cantankerous curmudgeon. But we don’t do much to stop them being so damn miserable.

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the person who has an occasional off-day. That would be all of us. And I’m not talking about the person who bravely points out that something is amiss. I’m talking about the person who appears to have made sulking their life’s work.

They seem to defy nature, having no positive electrons surging through them at all. They’ve turned being negative into an art-form.

I’ve met people who’ve worked for 30 years with the same company and have never had a good word to say about it. I’ve had to train some of them, but thankfully that brings us into contact for only a few hours. God only knows what it’s like putting up with them for 40 hours a week, every week, for 30 years!

Why have we tolerated it for so long? Why didn’t someone put them out of their misery and show them the door?

Do You Know This Person?

A consultant I know of calls these people ‘psychic vampires’. I really wish I’d thought of that, because it so perfectly describes the way they suck the life-blood out you with their incessant moaning and groaning.

We come into work on a Monday, fresh and excited after a great weekend. We can’t wait to tell some of our colleagues about it. But before we get to them we are confronted by the company complainer.

We want to avoid him but we feel cornered. Turning around and going in the opposite direction would seem rude. Darting into the stair well might result in injury.

So we steer ourselves and offer a cheery “Good morning, Will”

“Is it?” he replies.

And straightaway, our fabulous weekend becomes a distant memory and the long week of work stretches ahead of us like a life sentence…in the company of Whinging Will. We stagger away, heading towards the kitchen hoping to find a sharp knife with which to slit our wrists.

There are lots of Whinging Will’s & Negative Norma’s. They make themselves very noticeable even if they try to hide. And they cast a very big cloud over us.

If your name is Will or Norma, don’t take offence unless this description is true of you. In which case, you should be offended. But you’d be offended anyway, wouldn’t you?

Fortunately for us there are usually many more Motivated Martins, Positive Peggys, Helpful Helens, and Willing Wilmas.

But one Whinging Will can be enough to bring down even the strongest constitution.


Most of us have a human need to fit in, to belong, to be part of a social group.  This shows itself as a tendency to play down to the lowest common denominator among our peers.

If someone is negative, we temper our natural positivity, fearing that it will offend them. If they are being judgemental, we might side-line our forgiving streak.

If we are surrounded by Whinging Will, Negative Norma and Curmudgeonly Curtis, it takes a very self-assured person to continue being upbeat, positive, lively and jolly.

So over time, the mood of the team starts to change. Maybe people huddle in groups and have a quiet moan about Will. They might even have a laugh about him to start with; but gradually it starts to get to them. Gradually they start to behave and feel miserable themselves.

When you know you are going to have to work with these people, possibly for a long time, you have to find a way to make it bearable. One of the ways is to become more like them.

One refusenik is all it takes, and if no-one does anything about it, the refusenik rot spreads.


We know business is tough and work is hard. In lean times we’re always being asked to do more for less. So we’re all stretched and pressurised and probably doing the work of two people. That’s probably the norm these days.

Most people manage this with fortitude and positive commitment; and still find time to bring a smile to work, despite the demands on them.

But some people, irrespective of being under pressure, even during the good times, just can’t find it in themselves to make a positive contribution.

Take a moment to think about the people you have in your organisation.

Do a quick sort and see if you can distribute them roughly into each of the four employee groups described below: A, B, C & D. Base your assessment on the make-up of your company today. In particular, do you have any C’s or D’s?

B: Willing but Unable

C: Unwilling but Able

D: Unwilling and Unable

You shouldn’t really have anyone in C or D, because this is the home of Whinging Will and Negative Norma. But it’s shocking to discover that many companies have a liberal spread of them.


When these people went through the recruitment process in order to join the company, they probably presented themselves as quite positive and fired up.

They told us what great team players they were and how passionate they were about delivering results. They said they were up for change, highly motivated, great problem solvers and very accommodating.

And we believed them. That’s why we hired them.

The over time, things changed.

For the first week or more, everything went to plan. Then slowly they metamorphosed into this cross between a tantrum-toddler and a hormonal-teenager. They become the Incredible Sulk!

  1. Now whenever we ask anything of them, they throw a wobbly. Even if it’s a totally reasonable request.

  2.  Now, when we’re trying to improve something, they’re always the ones who say, “It’ll never work!”

  3.  Now when we are all trying desperately to rebuild our companies from the ashes of the recession, they are the ones who drag us down.

Let’s look at how C & D people evolve within our companies.

Here’s a typical employee journey that you might recognise.

  1. Join Company (Employee B)

  2. Develop Skills (Employee A)

  3. Experience Change, Difficulty, Lack of Leadership or Stasis (Employee C)

  4. Give Up, Become Obstinate & Obsolete (Employee D)

  1. Join Company (Employee B)

  2. Develop Skills (Employee A)

  3. Role Changes (Employee B)

  4. Develop new skills & become competent (Employee A)

  5. Role Changes (Employee B)

  6. Develop new skills & become competent (Employee A)

  7. etc.

Here, our employee rises to each new challenge and overcomes it. It takes a mix of their own motivation with the right support mechanisms to make it happen this way.

To understand what’s been going on, we have to look at:

  1. What turns some people from A or B into C or D? If they started out Willing and added Capability to this, why did they then become Unable and Unwilling?

  2. What was the specific trigger that brought about the behaviour change, and could it have been avoided?

  3. Are they ill, in which case why didn’t we spot it earlier?

  4. Or were they just very clever at disguising their true selves for long enough to secure the role?

It’s bad enough that we might have been complicit in creating the situation in the first place. It’s even worse that we’ve given C’s and D’s unfettered freedom to drain our emotional well-being and productivity by not intervening.


You’ve got to identify whether you’ve got a genuine refusenik on your hands, or someone who is presenting themselves as one for some other reason.

Typically, there are three types of employee who can look very similar. They are:

  1. The depressed & mentally ill

  2.  The person who has been switched off by what’s happened at work

  3.  The habitual moaner

Confusing these three can be disastrous, and trying to treat all three the same could only succeed in making matters worse.

Whilst the symptoms might present themselves in a similar way, the root cause and development of the symptoms can be different.

1.      Mental Illness or Depression?

Someone who has become mentally ill or depressed will probably have experienced a slow decline. Their behaviour might be erratic (some good days and some bad), and they could have been changing gradually over time.

People with mental illness can continue to function extremely well at work if they are given the right treatment. Offer support and counselling to get them through, use your occupational health services, and point them in the direction of their doctor.

It’s also possible that someone has experienced a fairly traumatic experience which has temporarily knocked them for six. If you know your employees well, it is likely you will be aware of these events. If this is the case, their behaviour might suddenly change. They need a break and understanding. They might need to talk it through. They will need compassion. They won’t need penalising.

2.      Ground Down?

People might have been ground down over the years by things the company or a manager has done to them.

They may have been made ill by the company expecting more, communicating less, failing to consider the impact of decisions on them, ignoring them, piling more and more seemingly useless bureaucratic tasks on them, taking away key resources, replacing good systems with fiendish ones…the list goes on.

This, if unchecked, can lead to serious depression in some people.

But they started out positive and committed, so their behaviour has changed over time, and we should be able to observe this change.

Other people might have a grievance which for various reasons they choose to air by sulking rather than addressing it through the formal or informal grievance procedures. If this is the case, you need to explore their grievance. Many are the result of simple misunderstandings; although some are legitimate complaints that need to be dealt with.

If you let it fester, it will grow out of all proportion over time and the way back may be almost impossible.

If you deal with it, the chances are the employee will become re-motivated. If they don’t, it’s possible you’re dealing with our third type of employee described below.

3.      A Habitual Moaner?

Sometimes people just slip into the role of being a moaner. They might not actually be unhappy. If anything, they probably enjoy behaving the way they do because they invariably get what they want: people leaving them alone; not having to take on accountability or responsibility; rarely being asked to do things. They’re not so much Whinging Will as Whinging Won’t.

They might have been very clever at disguising this behaviour when they came for the job interview, and they disguised it because they knew it was wrong. But it’s now become a habit.

They are not pathologically miserable: it’s just worked for them in the past and they haven’t been given a good enough reason to change.

Other people just develop bad habits from being around the wrong people for too long, or from never having been giving feedback.

They simply need to know what you’ve seen and how you feel about it. In many cases this is enough to correct their behaviour.


I propose three changes you need to make to improve the situation. Collectively they are our reasons to be Cheerful…One, Two, Three.

  1. Be vigilant & respond immediately

  2. Introduce robust recruitment screening methods

  3. Make unconstructive behaviour a gross misconduct offence

1.      Vigilance & Quick Response

First, understand why someone is behaving the way they are.This will help to determine whether we have a medical case on our hands or simply a grouch.

  1.  Keep a watchful eye on events and activities that might bring about a negative change in an employee’s state of mind and well-being.

  2. Look closely at what you are doing that might be making people so unhappy that they lose all interest, motivation and commitment to the company.

  3. When you are managing any change initiative that will have an impact on an employee, don’t assume that they will just get on with it and cope. Factor them into your equation and be ready to make the necessary support available.

  4. Always be on the lookout for sudden changes in mood, but don’t overlook the slow, almost imperceptible decline that can happen with some people.

  5. Then, when you spot the change intervene immediately.

Be sensitive in the way you respond, but find out what triggered the change, and let the employee know that you have spotted it.

You may have been partly responsible for the behaviour being demonstrated by the disgruntled employee. Recognise this and accept that you have a responsibility to create the conditions which will allow the employee to make a positive change. They also have a responsibility to respond appropriately.

2.      Recruitment

There’s a Viagra equivalent available to Whinging Will, but only if he’s seriously depressed (which, as we have shown, should always be considered a possibility).

If he is simply trying to present a more favourable image of himself because he knows that the real Stan wouldn’t get the job, you need to be much more robust in the way you put him through the recruitment process.

Somehow we have to weed out the serial complainers, malingerers and malcontents.

The best option we have is a multi-faceted assessment process like an Assessment Centre. The individual elements are typically insufficient to properly assess what a candidate is really like, but collectively (especially if they follow each other in quick succession) a fuller picture begins to emerge.

It’s surprising how few companies actually use well-constructed Assessment Centres as part of their recruitment process. Deterred by the upfront costs of setting them up, designing and administering them, many simply opt for an interview process supplemented by an almost useless reference check.

So our job applicant simply has to read any one of the hundreds of books with titles like “Perfect Answers to Interview Questions”, “How to Wow them at Your Job Interview”,  “What They Really Want to Hear”, or “Lie Your Way to Success” and then regurgitate any one of the model answers scripted for him/her. It’s relatively easy to fake.

It’s much less easy to fake when they have to carry out a range of tasks over an extended period of time. Sooner or later the veneer will crack and it’s better to see what’s lurking beneath it before you decide to bring them into your company.

3.      Gross Misconduct

But make sure you know what you’re looking for. You don’t want to stop people being constructively critical or challenging because these are vital activities that help teams make well-judged decisions, and deliver innovative solutions.

And you don’t want to penalise people who are feeling a bit down one day.

However, you do want to tackle the serial offenders who get the balance wrong. This is where their behaviour becomes destructive. It’s wrong when someone:

  1. always say “No”

  2. always reminds us that “It’ll never work”

  3. consistently undermines efforts to make progress

  4. never chooses to participate

  5. repeatedly bad-mouths the team and the company

  6. refuses every request to help

  7. constantly attacks positions without putting forward positive and viable alternatives

  8. moans incessantly

So you have to define the type of behaviour that you consider unacceptable, in terms that everyone understands, and then communicate it clearly. It’s part of the contract between you the employer and them the employee.

I came across a company in Germany who introduced a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy for moaning and whinging. They just got fed up with a small group of people demoralising the rest of the workforce.

The disciplinary process exists as a vehicle to correct performance and behaviour. But it also provides a route to the door for those employees who refuse to play ball, and who threaten the stability of a company through inappropriate and unwelcome behaviour.


It’s hard to be motivated every day. Sometimes, we don’t like an idea. Occasionally, we are so overwhelmed by work that we feel the need to retreat. These are normal behaviours and we shouldn’t be afraid to show them at work. But the clue is in the word ‘occasionally’.

It’s much easier to handle an employee who has the odd off day because we know that the next day they’ll be back on again. We give them a bit of space, some support and encouragement, and they re-join the fold fairly quickly.

What’s not so easy is living with the knowledge that Whinging Will is going to come in every morning in exactly the same state as the day before. It doesn’t matter whether the workload is heavy or light; or deadlines are loose or tight. He’s simply out of love with the company, his colleagues, and his work.

Having eliminated mental illness as a primary cause, (or diagnosed and arranged for treatment of it); having considered your own role as a primary root cause of the behaviour; and having been clear about the type of behaviour you require as a condition of employment, you simply need to take action whenever you spot a breach.

Don’t be a refusenik yourselves. Respond & reform!

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