Managing Mean People

It’s happened to all of us. We’ve been shocked, embarrassed, angered, insulted or offended by someone in our workplace. Or worse, witnessed it happen to someone else. Yikes. What do we do? How do we react? What do we say?

A lot of people seem to agree that the best response is no response. Ignore the behavior, kind of like ignoring a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. Provide no reaction whatsoever in the hopes the behavior will stop. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

If you are a colleague of this person, try ignoring any inappropriate behavior. If the behavior persists or becomes untenable in any way, you should go to your supervisor and let them know what’s going on. Of course, you do not have to ignore even the first instance of inappropriate behavior from a colleague, and if you feel upset, threatened, or harassed in any way, talk to your supervisor immediately.

If you’re a manager or supervisor of one of these people, you cannot ignore it, you must deal with it and you must deal with it immediately.

As a manager, you absolutely cannot watch one of your employees being mean or inappropriate in any way to another person. This is just not acceptable. Ignoring the behavior allows it to continue. Ignoring the behavior implies the behavior is okay or even encouraged. Ignoring the behavior sends a very clear message to your other employees that you will tolerate this behavior.

So, as a manager, what do you do?

First, take immediate action, but do it in private. Ask the person to step into your office, close the door and have a private discussion.

Try to find out why. Most people who are displaying mean or bullying behavior probably feel threatened in some way. Is there some way you can help? Really listen to what the person says.

Stay calm. Do not fight fire with fire or react aggressively to aggression. Stay calm; speak calmly.

Be clear. State unequivocally that this behavior is not acceptable, period. Then, specifically state why this behavior is unacceptable and discuss better ways for the employee to communicate with coworkers going forward. Spell out the consequences of failing to do so.

Set clear, specific guidelines for behavior in your company. These guidelines apply to everyone. Make sure they’re clear to everyone, especially your troublemaker.

Finally, keep good records. If the person continues with the same behavior, you may have no choice but to respond with appropriate consequences. The guidelines that you’ve reiterated with the person should state that only a specific number of incidents will be tolerated and discussed, then termination will follow. Just follow your guidelines.

Some of these people may have deeper issues than you are prepared or qualified to deal with. If your company is large enough to offer counseling, then by all means, offer those services to your troubled employees. But most of us are in smaller businesses that are ill-equipped to deal with in-depth personal issues. So, be clear with your company guidelines and follow them to the letter. This protects you, your company, and most importantly, your employees.

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