Dealing With Problem Employees

Employee Authority Confrontation Issues

Dealing with a problem employee is never pleasant. But the worst of the many problem employee types is the employee who openly questions authority. Here's how to deal with an employee that has authority confrontation issues.

How do I deal with an employee who challenges my authority?

An employee who confronts and contravenes management authority is a menace.

The key to dealing with problem employees who question management decisions is to move quickly. Don't let employee disgruntlement and employee dissatisfaction ruin your organization.

If you wait too long, your good employees will leave, because the work environment may very well become intolerable to them. Even if it doesn't come to that, the undermining of your authority may permanently damage your authority.

After all, if you are willing to let an underling berate you publicly, do you think others will continue to maintain their faith in you? Probably not. Their esteem for you as a manager will likely plummet, and, in turn, their productivity and motivation will plummet as well.

Having said that, don't act too rashly. It's possible the employee had a bad day, or was legitimately upset that something didn't go their way. While it's not ideal, that sort of behavior is human. Time generally heals that wound.

But when the employee bad behaviors appear to be long-term in nature, you need to recognize that your organization has been poisoned and quickly find the antidote.

The antidote that works best is terminating the ill-behaved employee. Get them out the door as soon as you can. The worst mistake you can make is hoping that they will magically transform from a bad hire into a good hire.

Offering a "shape up or ship out" warning is a nice gesture, if you want to go that route. Over time, you'll gain intuition on which problem employees are worth saving.

Part of issuing an employee warning has to involve good listening skills and empathy. Simply start with "The way you've been acting lately is causing some problems. Is there something going on that you want to tell me about?"

At this point, many employees will play dumb. "What are you talking about?" they will ask. Be ready with the details, as in "On this date, you said X. In this meeting, you said Y." Explain the negative consequences of their actions, and make it clear that you won't tolerate the behavior. Don't get into an argument about the details. Keep it high level.

Listen to what they have to say and think seriously if there is a cure for what is making the employee so hostile and confrontational. Maybe shifting their responsibilities might turn things around, for example.

At the end of your conversation, give your warning: "One more time and we will have to let you go."

You've put the ball in their court, and it's now up to them to become a better employee.

Now, what about a scenario in which you constantly are running into hostile employee situations?

In this case, it's time to look in the mirror and see if maybe you are at fault. For example, maybe you are taking constructive criticism as a threat to your authority, making a mountain out of an employee problem molehill.

It's normal to have one problematic employee every twenty hires.

If your hit rate is higher than that, either your recruiting process is flawed or you are.

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Conversation Board

What do you suggest a boss do when an employee consistently challenges the boss's authority in front of other employees or engages in passive-aggressive behavior behind the scenes? We'd love to hear your tips for dealing with a bad employee. If your battling this issue right now, tell us the details and we'll try to offer some additional useful advice based on your situation. Thanks.

  • Barry posted on 5/3/2010
    Your assumption about "confrontational employees" assumes that management is sound, competent and treats its employees fairly. I have 2 managers, both of which are younger and less experienced than me. Our company has adopted this "top-down management heirarchy" in the past year. I've come to think of it as management is always right, and employees are always wrong. I don't have problems with authority, in so much as I have problems with people who are disconnected from the actual work, who make decisions for us without our consultation or input. And then if we challenge that, as you say, we are "the worst case" and a "menace". I'm sorry, but based on this tyranical dictatorial authoritarian model you believe in, you assume employees are always "in the wrong" and "need to be corrected", when sometimes management is clearly wrong and disconnected and incompetent. This is what's wrong with current western models of business management. I should be able to challenge my manager and even fire them. It's what unions used to be able to do. Employees do talk. And if management is making mistakes, it ruins the organization. You seem to assume that only employees can ruin an organization. So i'm sorry. I don't agree with your perspective. Never have, never will.
  • Adam posted on 5/17/2010
    Barry, There are several lines in this article that talk about the red flags that a manager is the problem, not the employee. Read the last few paragraphs. Moreover, this article seems to be written primarily as advice for a single manager trying to deal with a single employee relationship. It is up to the reader to determine if the information above applies to that specific relationship and whether or not it will help the MANAGER better MANAGE the employee. I don't see where you made the leap that this article implies that all employees who speak up are always the problem. If you ask me you seem to be projecting your own problems onto the author of this article. Get a better job man!
  • John posted on 6/9/2010
    I'm trapped in an organization where our top exec's pushed a pay plan onto our sales organization that's riddled with inconstencies and irregularities, and some of our key salespeople are about to walk if they don't have a fair and equitable resolution to those parts of the plan that are nearly impossible to explain, let alone defend. Any attempt by me and my peers to meet to discuss it is ignored, so as managers...we have demotivated troops and it's me that's apt to leave. where have the thinking executives gone in America....and can we get them back in time to make a difference?
  • Ken Gaebler posted on 6/10/2010
    Ken Gaebler
    John, sounds like a tough situation. Yeah, redefining a sales comp plan is like playing with fire. When you mess with a person's compensation, you are likely to create a hostile and confrontational work environment. Do your part to fix things. If the situation doesn't improve, you are probably best off finding a new position somewhere else.

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