Taking Out a Bully Employee

Question:

Nine months ago, I hired “Gabe” to handle a critical position in our company. From his first week, he took charge of a number of situations that were troublesome. I’m a fairly easygoing, accommodating supervisor, and I appreciated the way Gabe laid down the law.

After Gabe had been here only a few months, employees started coming to me telling me he was a bully. What they told me didn’t sound like the Gabe I knew, a man I’d learned I could count on. I didn’t listen and after he’d been here six months, I named Gabe my deputy.

Several of the employees who had complained then quit. As I was busy with other projects, I gave Gabe control over hiring their replacements, except for “Shannon.” Although Gabe had wanted me to hire a friend of his, Shannon had the skills we needed. When Gabe learned I wasn’t hiring his friend, he threw a temper tantrum. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Shortly thereafter I left for a long planned-for vacation from which I’ve just returned. In my absence, Shannon quit and Gabe hired his friend. My other assistant has also given notice and I believe it has something to do with Gabe. At the same time, Gabe has real talents and I don’t want to lose him if I can save the situation. Any suggestions?

Answer:

When an employee tells you another employee bullies them, listen. As many employees show one side to their managers and a completely different side to their peers and employees, you can’t assume that problem behavior you haven’t personally seen doesn’t exist.

If Gabe is a bully, you may have to fire him, regardless of his other talents. If you’ve outlined the facts accurately, three to five employees have quit due to Gabe. You urgently need to find out what’s going on and deal with it. If the problem isn’t Gabe, you need to know that as well.

Interview your employees, starting with your assistant. Let them know the recent turnover worries you and ask them what’s causing it. If you haven’t already, also call your recently departed employees, including Shannon, and conduct exit interviews.

The longer you delay handling this situation, the more opportunity you give Gabe to potentially create a toxic environment for you and others, damaging morale and productivity, and weakening your relationships with your employees.

If Gabe is a bully, expect him to fight any discipline you mete out. Bully employees invariably feel justified in their actions and have few qualms about fighting back when managers, particularly accommodating ones, initiate discipline.

You may also need to realign your priorities. Because you were busy with other projects, you let Gabe hire replacement employees. Have you invested time in creating two-way communications with these employees?

No matter how large your workload, commit to spending regular time with all your employees. A bully employee who hopes to overthrow the supervisor spends considerable time cultivating covert relationships with co-workers, and then uses these to poison their co-workers against the supervisor. They distort your managerial actions to their co-workers, leading your other employees wonder why you are “so mean” to their co-worker. If your employees don’t get to know you, they may believe your employee bully’s misrepresentations of you.

Finally, if Gabe is your problem, realize you can’t afford the price of nice. Ask yourself, “What’s it going to take for me to rise to the challenge?” Then, whatever it is, find it in yourself. Easygoing managers who hire “lay down the law” seconds-in-command often brew a recipe for disaster.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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