Dealing with a Challenging Employee: Ask Madeleine

Stickfigure Jumps Over A ChasmDear Madeleine,

I have an employee who is borderline insubordinate and unquestionably insolent. The issue is that she is a hot-and-cold employeepossibly suffering from depression. Instead of listening when I try to help her with her challenges at work, she verbally attacks me. How do I supervise someone who is hostile one day and yet anxious to learn another day? She asked for a new supervisor, but no one wants to supervise her because they know how unpredictable both she and her work are. —Frustrated


Dear Frustrated,

This situation sounds really hard. We all spend a lot of time at work, and everyone goes through rough patches when it’s difficult to be well behaved. You clearly have had to use extra self-regulation to deal with such a prickly employee!

First things first—you mentioned a possible diagnosis of depression. There are legal restrictions and consequences that you need to be aware of. For example, in the US, mental disabilities are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Since I have no way of knowing whether your employee has requested any accommodations or whether there are extenuating circumstances, I can’t really help you there. You will need to sit down with your human resources partner and learn the rules as dictated by your company’s policy and the employment laws in your geographical area.

That being said, there are some things you can do to keep yourself healthy and thriving.

  1. Set some general ground rules. You are entitled to protect yourself from irrational behavior and to do this, you need to define some clear hard-and-fast rules you can stick to when things get rough. To do this, you have to decide for yourself the type of behavior you are—and are not—willing to put up with. Some examples of language to use:
  • “You’re allowed to have a bad day. Let me know when you are having one and I will steer clear of giving you feedback.”
  • “Under no circumstances are you allowed to verbally attack me, no matter how upset you are.”
  • “We can disagree, but neither of us is allowed to get personal.”
  • “There is never a good reason to raise voices at work.”
  • “It is my job to give you feedback on your work—both developmental and positive—and I need to be able to do that without upset.”
  • “If I experience you being rude to me, I will point it out and ask you to stop. You may do the same with me.”

When your employee is having a good day, strike while the iron is cool—meaning not when she is worked up. Sit down with her, share how committed you are to her success, and share the rules of engagement with her. Say that you can both refer back to the rules when things get tense.

  1. Defend your boundaries. Once you have set up the rules you will have to defend them, which may be unpleasant. So make them clear and enforceable—and then be ready to say “No, we agreed this is not allowed” in a neutral tone when you have to.
  2. Be kind and tell the truth. The next time your employee brings up getting another supervisor, tell her the truth that no one else is interested in managing her because of how unpredictable she is. Remind her that the two of you have had your good moments together, you have her best interests at heart, and you are committed to working things out.

Finally, you may never win with this person—and if you don’t, it won’t be your fault. Your use of the words insolent and insubordinate lead me to think that you believe she should show you only deference and respect. You may not be able to shift that belief enough to make an allowance for her erratic behavior. But you can only change yourself—you will not be able to change her. It’s very possible that you may not be able to tolerate this situation long term. If you think that is the case, I would recommend you work with human resources, put your employee on a performance plan, and take the steps necessary to move her out of the organization.

Good luck to you.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

2 thoughts on “Dealing with a Challenging Employee: Ask Madeleine

  1. This is, once again, fantastic advice on how to manage a difficult situation. I have a followup question that maybe you can address, Madeleine. Let’s say we do everything you’ve advised and the employee has a bad day, is rude, and verbally abuses the manager. The manager reminds him or her of the rules, but the attack continues. What would be a healthy consequence that protects the manager and holds the employee accountable? Should the manager walk away and explain that the conversation can continue when both are able to abide by the ground rules? I would love to know your perspective on what to do next. Thanks as always for a very helpful column!

  2. Pingback: Coping with a Difficult Worker: Ask Madeleine | Posts

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