When a new supervisor clashes with long-term employees, whose side to take?
Q: When we hired “Laura” as the new supervisor for our customer service department, we thought we’d picked the perfect person. Laura had nine years of supervisory experience, but had worked for only two employers. Both employers said Laura’s peers and employees loved her. Laura’s longevity impressed us because our two prior supervisors each lasted less than a year. Turnover, in fact, has plagued this department, other than two long-term employees, who’ve been with us for close to three years.
When Laura began with us, she started strong. Four employees participated in the hiring process, and they voted unanimously that she was “the one.” At first, the employees liked her, and our management team was thoroughly impressed.
Problems started two months later, when Laura got crosswise with first one and then the other long-term employee. Laura wrote up one for continuing to work overtime without prior authorization. This employee went to HR and said that Laura’s unreasonable expectations pushed her to work overtime and now she was being critiqued for it. She called Laura a bully.
Laura wrote up the other employee for making too many personal cellphone calls. This employee had gone to HR prior to being written up, complaining that Laura was “heavy-handed.” After Laura wrote her up, the employee let HR know she felt “Laura was out to get her” in retaliation for seeking HR help, and told HR that she rarely took personal calls. She also called Laura a bully.
When we told Laura the employees’ allegations, she was devastated, particularly by the bully label. She said she’d spent the first six weeks getting to know the employees and what she’d seen had worried her. She said that these two employees and several others had poor work habits and that when she addressed the problems these two got defensive and belligerent. We listened to Laura but reminded her that being a good supervisor was why we hired her and added that these two employees had a great deal of job knowledge and we didn’t want to lose them.
After our conversation, things improved. Since the weather has been great, everyone wanted time off. Laura approved a lot of leave, sometimes leaving the office short-handed, but the employees seemed to respond well to this loosening of the reins.
Then, Laura shocked us. She turned in her resignation this morning. We don’t want to accept it. How do we get her to stay and work through the situation?
A: If you move fast, you can turn this around. Start by really listening to Laura. You say you listened to her, but did you? Or did you instead tell her she needed to knuckle under to two employees who may be at least partially responsible for your turnover problem?
Sometimes a good supervisor meets a problem group and they give her a bad rap. If management then responds that the supervisor needs to keep the peace, and the supervisor knows the only way to do so is to allow employees to dictate the terms under which they’ll work, it can tear up a good supervisor. The net result — you lose the supervisor and often other good employees. From your description of events, Laura didn’t loosen the reins, she gave up.
Ask Laura to meet with you and outline in detail the work habit problems she found. Then, fully listen to the employees — all of them — because they deserve having their concerns fairly heard. My guess is that some of the bystander employees have felt cowed by your two longest-term employees who’ve somewhat “ruled the roost.”
Once you’ve heard everything, decide what feels right. If Laura came down too hard and fast on employees, let her know. But if you learn what I suspect you might, tell Laura you have her back, and ask her to stay and fix things.
© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.