Most of us will, at some point in our career, have come across at least one difficult colleague or co-worker, and it goes with the territory as HR professionals to be able to appropriately deal with any potential conflicts or tensions arising from the actions of such individuals. But what happens when problem employees are at a senior level within the organisation, in a position of both power and influence? Below Joanne McAuley, from Clarendon Executive, explores what might constitute ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ behaviour from those in senior or managerial roles, and what steps HR can and must take to effectively manage such behaviour and fulfil a duty of care to employees.
We’ve all been there. Be it work, school or family gatherings, we’ve all found ourselves in situations where we have been forced to interact with people we find ‘difficult’. In our personal lives we can to some extent minimise such interactions, however in the workplace – with its increasingly diverse makeup of age, gender, and personality type – they are inevitable.
HR professionals are responsible for creating a work environment that enables people, and thus the organisation, to thrive. If conflicts, disagreements and differences of opinion escalate into interpersonal conflict, it falls to you to sort it out.
This can be difficult enough when the situation concerns employees in more junior roles, but when challenges relate to individuals ‘at the top’ – those in positions of leadership and authority - not only is the situation more acutely sensitive, but, if not properly addressed, can prove severely detrimental to both the morale and performance of the entire organisation.
It’s an HR nightmare. A boss routinely yells and swears at employees or speaks indiscreetly about staff in front of others. There’s no excuse for it, but sometimes bosses behave badly, and they can do untold harm in the process.
There are many traits in bosses or people in senior or managerial/supervisory positions employees find ‘challenging’ to deal with, some of the most common being:
The Bully - He or she shouts at their colleague(s), dressing them down in front of other workers. The bullying may take place in person or via email. Either way, the employee hates working for this person and wants to leave.
The Narcissist - Narcissists display high levels of aggression, often a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to hear feedback, a strong sense of entitlement and superiority, and tend to be highly critical of others.
The Micromanager – This is the boss that wants to read every email their subordinate sends. If an employee feels they have no freedom, has given up on trying, constantly feels the need to check in and gets frustrated that nothing is done quickly, chances are you have a micromanager on your hands.
The Perfectionist - There’s nothing wrong with wanting things done right, but the perfectionist boss takes it to extremes. They’ll ask subordinates to re-do things a million times even though the finished product always looks the same, belittles their work and makes everyone stay late until it’s perfect…often a point at which they decide they may as well do it themselves.
What can HR do?
Aside from the legal liability to provide employees with a safe workplace, there are many practical steps HR professionals can take to address difficult behaviours and challenging individuals, no matter their rank within the organisation:
Don’t condone the behaviour/attitude by doing nothing – Employees will be watching to see if and how you handle the situation and depending on your approach there are obvious ramifications for HR’s reputation. Acting promptly sends a clear signal to the business that this behaviour/attitude won’t be tolerated, irrespective of the seniority of the staff member.
Get the facts - If an employee complains about their boss or line manager, HR first needs to ascertain if it’s really the boss causing the problem. Sometimes an employee may feel picked on or treated poorly, but the boss is doing a good job. One of the challenges for HR is to decide whether they really have a managerial problem or if it’s just that the employee doesn’t want to be held accountable.
Talk – It may be that the person in question is completely unaware of the impact their behaviour is having on others. Sometimes a tactful, non-confrontational discussion using clear examples of questionable behaviour/attitude can help call attention to the matter. During this discussion use real examples of their behaviour, ideally what you have observed. Remind him or her of the importance of how they are seen to handle things going forward – there should be no recriminations for the individual who has made the complaint. The manager needs to demonstrate maturity in hearing feedback and responding positively to it.
Feedback - Encourage the management team to meet with their staff and get feedback on what they should 1) do more of, 2) start doing and 3) stop doing – this shows staff the management are open to feedback and allows them to raise any issues in a safe environment.
Policies - Every employer should have a suite of relevant policies including a harassment policy, IT policy and reporting mechanism so that employees have recourse and employers can stop an errant boss who’s violating company policy or even acting unlawfully.
Training - Invest in the manager’s development to address the issue - if a local course is not available or it is too sensitive an issue for the manager to deal with it in a public forum, consider other options. Coaching, for example, delivered by a qualified professional may be a more appropriate support.
It is also worthwhile providing ‘best practice’ leadership training for all staff in management positions. Such training will protect the company, the manager and the employee.
The bigger picture
It is clear that HR has a pivotal role to play in tackling problematic behaviour, supporting all parties involved. On this note it is worth considering the detrimental impact difficult individuals, particularly at management level, can have on employer brand and attracting future talent. Some people, in spite of your best endeavours, will fundamentally never change. Once the manager has been given the support and opportunity to change and this has not had the desired outcome, then in such circumstances you may need to weigh up whether it’s better for company morale and productivity to keep them in the business and risk further damaging company culture and reputation.
It is also an idea to review your selection procedures at managerial level – do you incorporate any psychometric testing to complement the interview process? Such assessments, while by no means foolproof, can provide insights into personality traits and behavioural patterns, thus better informing the decision-making process and, along with detailed references, will help you make the right recruitment choices at the outset.
Clarendon Group, 12b Clarendon Road, Clarendon Dock, Belfast, BT1 3BG