coming out of my shell

coming out of my shell

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.


  1. It's good to hear the other side. Unfortunately my coworker is a nurse and our boss is an x-ray tech. Not a good mix because my coworker just says, but you're not a nurse to our boss and he seems to think he has no recourse. He's not a bad guy but he hates conflict and avoids it at all costs. If you bug him enough he will give you what you want usually but I don't operate that way. And she honestly believes she is the greatest nurse ever which just causes me to shake my head.

    Obviously I am not looking forward to her return. Sigh.

    1. Not to take any blame away from the nurse, but your boss needs to call her on her bs and remind her that customer service and respect for co-workers are general workplace skills, not nursing per se. I feel for him, but she's walking all over him and it is making him look bad. Anyway, good luck. She sounds like a horror.

    2. It seems like there should be a head nurse, doesn't it? Some fearless soul who cares a lot about the department and the patients? I bet the x-ray tech would be happy to be relieved of that responsibility. That might be the way to approach this - rather than making him feel bad about himself. Some nurse probably needs to have clear authority over this other nurse or there won't ever be a resolution to this problem.

    3. There should be a nursing supervisor but the health authority won't allow it. Can't remember the reason but it does cause a lot of problems. Although his training is in x-ray he now manages MRI techs, Nuc Med techs, mammo techs and CT techs as well, and nurses of course. It doesn't work but I do love my patients.

  2. I have recently been asked to take over a large department - which I will probably only do on a temporary basis. Plus my secretary is retiring and I need to do a new hire. I read both your posts with great interest as so much at my office is about to change. I may be calling on you for advice. Lots and lots of advice : )

    1. Managing a large department can be really interesting. It is nice if you can give it a try and see how you like it before you commit. You will do great.

  3. I was the manager (they're called directors actually) of a large catering end of a large hotel. (one such event involving 16 lamas for 2 days !) As well as being a manager, I had to supervise an under-manager of a large troublesome service staff. Hotels are notorious for filling these positions with young people with drug and alcohol problems, a inherent problem in any hotel, not to exclude guests from the, alcohol and 24 hour in and out of bedrooms and all the shenanigans that go with that kind of business. It was a very tough job that honestly I didn't do well..softy hearted as I was then and still am, yeah, now too. I relied on HR for a lot of guidance for myself and in the end it was probably me who benefited most as I was able to carry some of that forward into my own life.

    But this all reminds me of a wisdom from Rilke -
    "Everything terrible is something that needs our love." Much easier now than the first of my life.

    1. Being a supervisor is a REALLY hard job.

      "Everything terrible is something that needs our love." Beautiful sentiment, I think. But it scares me half to death.


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