Monday, March 7, 2016
Part II: Supervising a difficult person
As I said in Part I, I don't think you can change other people unless they want to be changed. In Part I, I made that statement as a co-worker; now in Part II, I am speaking as an ex-supervisor. I confess. I am a recovering supervisor. Ick.
Supervising a difficult and problematic employee is a little different than working alongside one. No better or worse, just a little different.
Handling performance issues and promoting group harmony is a big part of a supervisor's job. People who only want to be a supervisor for the prestige, power, or the extra money should think again. Supervising is a job you cannot do well if you are conflict averse, a people pleaser, give a shit if someone hates you, or (especially) if you don't want to work hard at unpleasant tasks.
It helps if you care strongly about people, policies, and organizations. A blogger named The Cranky commented on Part I of this 2-part post, telling a great story about how, as a supervisor, she eventually had an impact on a young employee and made a real difference in that person's life. It is a good example of the difference between working with someone you have no control over versus supervising someone. As supervisor you cannot just step away and avoid the person. You are supposed to try and change them...
The thing is, there are plenty of people who may not be particularly like-able or sociable, but they mind their own business and do a good job. Some of my favorite employees had difficult or prickly personalities. However, working with a difficult person who also has performance issues makes everyone's work-life a long, slow, super-annoying nightmare.
Contrary to popular opinion, in a large, progressive organization you can only fire someone on the spot if they do something sufficiently egregious, like being seriously insubordinate, or threatening another co-worker with bodily harm.
Firing someone who does substandard work, or falls sleeps at their desk every damn day, or consistently disrespects customers and/or other employees requires a long, excruciating process Human Resources likes to refer to as a "progressive disciplinary action." Let's call that a PDA, even though it is nothing like "public displays of affection." It involves months of mentoring, monitoring, documenting, and agonizing. You may not realize this but supervisors hate implementing progressive discipline as much as employees hate receiving it. True story.
The ex-union organizer in me strongly approves of a PDA. It's a pain in the you-know-what and it seems like sheer torture for everyone involved, but there is a point to it. Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone should have the time and opportunity to turn their performance issues around so they can avoid getting sacked.
Because supervisors have more power in the workplace, they SHOULD be required to prove an employee deserves to be fired. Otherwise we would definitely fire people who don't laugh at our jokes, or who wear too much perfume. You know who you are.
In doing performance evaluations for employees over a period of about ten million years, I discovered you can be stunningly straightforward and honest with most people if you are respectful. Sounds New Agey, I know. It often worked if I could muster up the emotional intelligence to pull it off. Now there's a big, fat IF.
Unfortunately, I am also an imperfect employee AND a hothead, so I wasn't always successful at getting people to change. However, it was satisfying when I could, and a supervisor can promote positive change more often than you might think. I am not kidding when I say there is nothing better than helping someone achieve their goals. Most people want to do a good job. If you are clear about expectations, people usually respond accordingly. Still, there is always at least one employee with performance "issues." If that employee also happens to be a difficult person, things can get complicated.
I always felt like a failure if a problem employee didn't improve their performance or change their attitude. I am still not sure if this is true or fair, but I always had the notion that I could make a difference if I could just do or say the right thing.
The right thing? As a co-worker I think doing the right thing really IS to accept there are some things I cannot change, avoid difficult people like the plague, and get on with my life. As a supervisor I had fewer choices.
When someone is doing a bad job or driving everyone out the door with their negative and/or condescending attitude, it is the supervisor's job to pull that employee into their office and find an effective way to tell the employee to cut it out. More often than not a difficult person doesn't think they are doing anything wrong. Sigh. AND, if your best efforts have no discernible effect you can be quite sure the other employees are bitching about you behind your back for not addressing the problem. Like the cheese from the Farmer in the Dell, the supervisor stands alone.
And then you can start a progressive disciplinary action.
And oh yeah, sometimes it is your supervisor who is the difficult person and a monumental slack ass. Good luck with that one.
I am happy to be retired and done with all that.