Is It a Threat to Say, “There’s the Door”?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a threat to be fired.

At my workplace where I am a union representative, managers will often use the phrase ” if you don’t like it, you know where the door is” or “there’s the door”. Is this a threat? Is it illegal practice?

Signed, Tired of the Threats

Dear Tired of the Threats:

There is nothing illegal about the statements you describe, nor are they threats. However, they are very poor ways to communicate and probably indicate broken relationships both ways. At a distance it’s impossible to know what has brought things to this point. Undoubtedly it will require specific effort by many people to get any improvement.

According to your union situation, perhaps there is some aspect to it that can justify a grievance. Probably not, since only contract issues are usually in that category. Instead, maybe you can help to calm the contention and help your whole workplace feel better. Start by analyzing the conversations and actions that have come before the “quit if you don’t like it” statement is made. Rarely is something like that said without a build-up.

Maybe there is a way you or others who have a leadership role can help stop the habitual interactions that take everyone down that path. As difficult as it is, consider the scenarios you describe, from another perspective. Even though it is ineffective and hostile sounding to say, “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out”, that is often the angry response of a manager who is very frustrated with hearing employees complain over something about which the manager has no control–especially if the manager thinks it’s just habitual complaining.

As Dr. Gordon often says, if work is awful and managers are intolerable, an employee (or all employees) can “vote with their feet” and leave. However, usually the truth is that the pay is OK, work isn’t so bad and no one is being asked to do something humanly impossible or illegal. It’s not bad enough to quit over, just bad enough to gripe about while still collecting a paycheck. If the griping is minor and only occasional, it won’t poison the workplace. But, when employees complain incessantly and look for reasons to fight with supervisors and managers (and vice versa) work becomes miserable. In most workplaces, managers and employees have worked together a long time and know each other well enough to have some honest talk. It won’t happen in the heat of the moment, but sometimes can happen when things have calmed down. So, maybe you can talk to a senior supervisor or manager about how demoralizing such statements can be. It may be that having regular meetings or informal conversations, will allow concerns or irritations to be discussed and a big conflict averted.

Also consider what you want the managers to say or do instead of using that old, hackneyed line about “there’s the door”. If you were they and knew you could not change a directive or a procedure and were tired of hearing complaints about it, what would you say to stop the conversation while still being approachable and courteous? Suggest it to your manager, as a way to plant the thought. Of course, it’s not your job to teach supervisors better ways of dealing with employees. But,if you have a suggestion for a way that would work, why not share it, if it can bring improvement?

You know your workplace best. What would gain cooperation from a complaining employee without having the manager reduce a work requirement just to make people happy? Usually the best way for a supervisor to handle objections about work is to acknowledge them. If it is possible to make changes, there is room for conversation and maybe some adjustments can be made. If not, the supervisor’s job is to ensure that the work is done. But, when it is done, the supervisor can express appreciation, praise the quality of the work, talk about the work some more, and in other ways show that this is just one more bump in the road that can be gotten over with patience. Let’s say you have tried everything you can in your leadership role to smooth communications. If a reasonable discussion isn’t possible and if there are levels of management higher than your direct supervisor, perhaps you can discuss this with them or with an HR section.

Most upper managers and executives want to feel that employees are treated decently. Most workplaces have policies about treating each other with respect. That works at all levels and can be used to show why the abrupt and unhelpful comments of managers are not respectful. If you can document that it is happening regularly, you will have an even better way to show that employees are being treated in a way that is not in keeping with company policy. If only one or two managers are making such statements and others are communicating much more respectfully, compare them in your letters or discussion about the situation. That way you can show that is possible to be an effective manager, but some of the current ones are not.

You may be thinking that this has been a long response to say that the situation you describe is not illegal and will be difficult to change! I wish there was a quick and easy solution, but there is not. I do think, however, that there are things that you can do in your role that might make a difference. It won’t hurt to try and it would be a good thing if you were able to play a part in permanent improvement. Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe