Q: I have an employee in a support area who has been a positive nightmare. Two months ago, the person approached me and said that because of his shift, he couldn't find proper care for his children before and after school. I accommodated him temporarily and explained that there were five other people on the desk who I had to think about as well. Ever since that day, he has been a thorn in my side. He is openly confrontational to his supervisor, has been antagonistic toward me and has been trying to provoke a physical confrontation at every turn. In speaking with the supervisor, I learned that this employee was unhappy that we wouldn't accommodate him on a regular basis with times that were convenient to him so he was going to be as disruptive as possible. The supervisor said that the employee felt we were singling him out. When the employee started calling in sick, I requested a note, which only made him more defiant. Now he is calling in sick for a week at a time which is causing major scheduling issues. Where do I start in dealing with this troublesome employee?
A: Apparently, your employee never heard the expression, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." It sounds like you were trying to be flexible, especially during a time of need with this employee; this is the mark of a helpful and understanding employer. The fact that your actions and best intentions backfired should be an immediate red flag to you that there is a real and serious problem brewing.
You seem to have three management challenges confronting you: first, the issue of flexible time; second, unusual and ongoing negative behavior by the demanding employee; and third, as a result of this behavior, declining morale on the part of the onlookers. Let's deal with the second issue first, the negative behavior. Regardless of its causes, no one can or should tolerate confrontational behavior, especially if it is accompanied by veiled or overt physical or emotional threats. If either of these get "out of hand," the result could be clear physical and emotional harm to individuals, destruction of property, lawsuits, and decreased productivity and profitability, to name just a few. This cannot and must not be tolerated by anyone, anywhere.
Immediately, you need to convene a meeting with your human resources officer, your lawyer and your security staff to identify the scope of the current activity and your options. Next, you need to invite the problem employee into a meeting, either with you alone, or preferably with the aforementioned colleagues. Frankly and empathetically, you need to ask the employee about the negative behavior and begin searching for an understanding of the causes and implications of his actions. Then, once the employee feels heard and understood, you can proceed toward creating solutions.
The very first resolution needs to be a cessation of negative verbal abuse, calling in sick without a physician's letter and potential physical threats or actions. If these three issues are not immediately agreed to, then employment termination needs to be seriously considered. This is based on both legal concerns and fear for potential violence. The key to this process is to create awareness in the employee that you are acting on behalf of and in the best interests of all of the employees in the company, including him. Above all, as the president or CEO, you need to ensure a professional and safe environment for everyone.
At this point, it is necessary to suggest a referral to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other form of counseling or therapy because your employee's actions are well beyond what is "normal" and acceptable, especially in the workplace. We do not yet know the reasons why this individual is acting in an inappropriate manner; more importantly, we cannot be certain that his actions will not turn to be more punitive and violent. This is why you need to act immediately and cautiously to protect the health and welfare of all individuals as well as the ongoing viability of your organization.
While this process for resolution is in motion, you and your management staff need to meet with your employees to reassure them that you are concerned about the health, safety and productivity of all individuals in your organization. To that end, you will enforce policies and procedures that help ensure employee satisfaction and output, being as flexible, understanding and supportive as possible. You also need to instill in them the firm belief that your organization exists to provide everyone with an opportunity to earn an income in a safe and supportive environment.
In the process of conducting these meetings, you will be addressing the other challenges mentioned earlier, the issues of flexible time, fairness to all individuals and employee morale.
Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.