Don’t Know What to Do with an Insubordinate Employee? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I started a new job about six months ago. My boss warned me about one of my direct reports—he said she was argumentative and difficult.

For the first few months I thought she was okay, but now I’m beginning to see what my boss meant. She is hostile in meetings. She agrees to things and then tells others how much she disagrees with me. She does not keep her commitments and then gives me lame excuses when I call her on it.

Yesterday she sent me an email calling me names that made my jaw drop. She was rude and inappropriate to the point where I wonder if she might have a mental problem.

In the meantime, my boss was let go—and I don’t really feel comfortable taking this to my new boss. I am just blown away by this woman’s insubordination and I honestly don’t know what I should do next.

Tolerating Insubordination

Dear Tolerating,

Stop tolerating. Draw some boundaries. But first, do some research and groundwork.

I always recommend starting by giving folks the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she has good reasons to behave the way she is behaving. It’s possible that your former boss’s attitude toward her has put her on the defensive. You can certainly call for a sit-down. Share your experience and ask how you might be able to craft a more productive working relationship. For more direction on having a hard conversation, you can refer to a previous post in this column. See how that goes. Maybe you can turn this around.

I think as the new manager, it is your job to give it your best effort to make this work by making clear requests for changes and giving her a chance to improve her behavior. But if you get no traction, you have to be fierce and decisive or you risk getting dragged down very quickly. She can easily poison other employees against you and the company if she hasn’t already.

Call out unacceptable behaviors as soon as they happen and provide redirection. If you find yourself unable to do so, ask yourself what you are afraid of. What power does she have that she has been getting away with this nonsense since long before you arrived at the company? Probably none, but she has somehow cowed your former boss and is now doing it to you.

Put up the hand and make it stop. Talk to your new boss and your HR partner and start the process of documenting every time she does something that undermines the team. There is no reason for you to put up with nastiness and lack of productivity—how can you possibly get your work done? Maybe she will back down—people who are just plain bullies often do when challenged. But if she keeps it up, call the game and replace her with someone who will do the job, have a good attitude, and be a pleasure to work with. As you well know, you can teach skills but you must hire for attitude.

It is my experience that managers who spend the bulk of their time on bad apples like your direct report never, ever regret showing them the door. Get your ducks in a row and keep a record of the bad behavior—how beautiful that you have concrete evidence in an email!

Sometimes people behave so badly that we question our own assessment and even our sanity or theirs. You are at that point, which is way too far past the pale. So give it one last shot to get on the same page—and if it doesn’t work, just say no. No, no, no. No.



About the author

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!

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