The supervisor felt trapped. Upper management didn’t seem to care, possibly because they didn’t have to work with the employee who was rude, abusive, and insubordinate. Besides, they deferred to the lawyers.
The lawyers were skittish about any action that might lead to a lawsuit. They knew a lot about the law but little about managing. They counseled delay and more delay, not seeing the effects on the team. The HR people, although sympathetic, deferred to the lawyers.
The employees had stopped complaining about their difficult coworker. They now watched and waited for someone to do something. Many of them regarded the lack of action as a sign either of disrespect or cowardice.
One of the problems was that the key players were never in the same room. After several attempts to sort things out with the employee, the supervisor had gone to his boss, then over to HR, who pushed him on to the lawyers. He then reported back to his boss who reluctantly talked with an executive. That sage simply said, “Handle it” and made it clear that he didn’t want to hear anymore about the subject.
[See 10 rules of E-mail etiquette.]
By the end of that process, the supervisor felt as if he had separate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but he wasn’t sure if they fit together. He sensed that there was a lack of confidence in him and that he was beginning to be identified with the employee as a problem that the others just wanted to disappear. All he knew for certain was he wasn’t getting the help that he needed to solve the problem.
He was right. The Human Resources professionals had failed to lead in a subject area in which they are the primary in-house authorities. Just as a general practice physician may bring in specialists to assist with the care of a patient, the HR professionals should have coordinated the treatment of a management problem. They should have either provided the solution on their own or brought together the necessary parties to work out a plan of action. If the supervisor was not handling matters correctly, that should have been addressed. HR could brief the lawyers on the impact of the situation and urge them to come up with legally defensible ways of resolving the matter in a reasonable amount of time. There was no reason to send the supervisor from person to person without clear and supportive coordination. His initial visit to HR should have produced a feeling of relief, not frustration or abandonment.
Human Resources professionals have three roles: administrator, cop, and consultant. Too often, they focus on the first two and neglect the third. When that happens, it is easy for supervisors–and employees–to drift and for matters to get worse.
Michael Wade writes Execupundit.com, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.