Continuously Emotional Employee

Question:

I have an employee who is very emotional due to a recent personal event. This employee has overheard comments from others that could be taken personal. The employee has complained on numerous occasions about what the others have said, as well as took a question concerning the title of a song personally. This employee has been noticed crying at the work station when she has made a complaint.

I have taken disciplinary action against the other employees for some statements made, as well as instructed everyone on the production floor to not play music loud enough for anyone else to hear or wear headphones. The majority of the time the complaint seems unjustified and could be due to the employee being paranoid. However, I investigate each incident to be sure and take any action necessary after discussing with HR. THe other employees complain about this employee “getting away” with some actions, which none of them have ever been disciplined for and I have not actually caught this employee doing any of the things they have complained about. However, I believe sometimes this may actually be happening. HR is holding back on doing anything because this could be considered retaliation due to the complaints.

I agree with HR’s argument however something needs to be done about all of them on both sides. My question, however, is yesterday the employee came to me and stated that the other employees were going to play X-Mas music today even though they know the employee does not like it.

Actually the statement was made to sound more like the others were going to play X-Mas music BECAUSE the employee doesn’t like it. Occasionally I have heard music coming from an area and have walked over and asked the person to turn it down. So, this morning, before most people arrived, the emotional employee came up to me, crying, and said they were playing X-Mas music and she was going to leave. I stated that I did not hear anything at all and that I am suprised since it so quiet this early but I will check it out. The employee re-stated that she was going to leave, and was still crying, upset, angry, etc. I stated that I couldn’t guarantee what would happen if she left, and that I am not approving this. The employee left. I plan to perform disciplinary action for an unexcused absence after discussing with HR. Sorry, here is the actual question(s)… Is the playing of the music something that could be considered offensive, since the employee believes it was done only because he/she did not want to hear it?

If I would have heard anything I would have been there right away to have them turn the music down. Usually I can barely make it out, if I hear anything at all. I know there are multiple causes for the problems in the department, which I have been told have been happening before I took the position. But, besides the possible abuse by other employees, which seems to have stopped since discipline was taken, the emotional state of this employee and the complaints she has made are bringing down morale of all employees, not just the ones who were part of the problem in the first place. I hate to say it but due to all the events, the quiet employees and others that have not had any part in this before, are now taking the side of the employees who were compained about in the first place. DO you have any suggestions that would help me raise morale, allow some of the benefits, such as music, and talk to the emotional employee to better explain that the problems are not only due to the others and that it will take all employees to make this work? The above paragrapgh is basically what I have already said to all employees. I have asked HR for some specific training that would help stop some of the issues that have happened so far, but was told that it was too expensive and that they are looking for something else.

Sincerely, Dan

Signed,

At Wit’s End Over The Workplace!


Answer:

DearĀ At Wit’s End Over The Workplace!:

You have a number of questions within your message–and it sounds like a problem that is bigger than any one general answer could help with! Let me share some thoughts and you can see if you can adapt some of them to your situation: 1. Something has to be done about the conflicts in your workplace that seem to be primarily caused by one employee. The other employees may not be helping to make it better, but the catalyst is this one person, wouldn’t you agree? The fact that the one employee has complained about other employees does not provide her with immunity from action about her own disruptive behavior or performance.

I agree that in some cases one has to be very careful–for example, if there has been whistle blowing about illegal actions by other employees or the company. But that is not the case here. The complaints your problem-employee has made, do not appear to be EEO violations, but rather just upset accusations about general issues. And you have responded appropriately to those.

I often suggest that supervisors develop, in writing, a history of the problem, listing what has happened, what has resulted and the impact everything has had on work. Work is the bottom line, of course.

I use this as a guide: If something is distracting from the focus on work, it needs to be changed or eliminated. If the actions of any employee–whether the one complaining or the ones being complained about–are disrupting excessively–you have a reason to be involved as a supervisor, and something must change or stop. How that happens is the big question!

2. There are several approaches to a situation like this. Some experts in conflict resolution would undoubtedly suggest an interview with Employee #1 (your apparent primary problem). You could find out more about the root causes. For example, has the employee always been this way, or did it only start with the bad situation in her personal life? What does she want to have stop, start or continue? Are those things realistic in your workplace? What is she willing to do to make things better? Will she accept your observation that you do not see the problems she has seen?

If you have an Employee Assistance Program, would she attend that to help her find a way to deal with the conflicts she sees occuring, and to help her emotional situation. Keep in mind that an employee sitting around crying IS disruptive to work! That doesn’t mean no employees can be unhappy at work, but it does mean there has to be a level of personal control over emotions in the workplace.

After that interview, you could discuss the results with HR and see if they believe there is a need to have a group meeting to talk about what is happening and how to make it better.

Dirty tricks are wrong, in any setting. If the other employees sense that they can get to Employee #1, they may have found subtle ways to do it, that you don’t see. That’s wrong and should be stopped. It’s not their place to discipline a co-worker for being the kind of person they don’t like.

Your job as a supervisor is to observe the work environment and evaluate the performance and behavior of employees as it relates to doing good work and being a constructive part of the work environment. When something happens that detracts, you must follow company guidelines about taking action. But at some point, your entire work time becomes consumed with taking action, mediating quarrels and calming emotions. If you can identify the people that are making that happen, and show a direct link between their behavior and performance and how you are having to respond over and over, perhaps you can convince HR that those employees are more trouble that they are worth!

Perhaps focusing on the positive contributions of each employee would also be worthwhile. You are not a psychologist and should not try to be. So, don’t get caught up with trying to help Employee #1 with her personal problems. However, you CAN help her see that her work is valuable and if she can get through these tough times for her, she will have a job that she needs and to which she can contribute. If she can’t find a way to work with the others, by focusing on her own work and learning to compromise about her personal likes and dislikes, she’ll lose her job and the stability it brings to her life. At some point you’re going to have to say that, don’t you think?

You may have to say that to some of the employees in the group, too!

Another thing to do that might help is, in the future when Employee #1 comes in to complain, insist that she put it in a written form. Tell her you want her to write what happened, who did it, who witnessed it, when it happened and how she responded to it.

Often supervisors allow verbal complaints only, so the complaining employee never really has to put their name on the dotted line. Require that in every case, both directions–from employees in the other group as well. A benefit of having it in writing is that it will also help show some of the other thought processes and can help HR see the emotional conditions of those involved.

3. Your immediate question was about the music. Two things to keep in mind about that: Music in the workplace is not a Constitutional right. The management team makes that decision, not the employees. If someone can’t work without music, they can find another job where music is played all the time! On the other hand, if music IS played and is not overtly offensive–like playing songs with obscene lyrics–employees must learn to live with that as well, or find another workplace where music isn’t allowed. Again, it is the management team that decides that policy–and it’s not up to employees to decide.

Most of the time, in work that requires concentration, the absence of music can’t be viewed as disruptive or distracting, but the presence of music can be. Holiday parties or special times would be the exception.

In other settings, such as retail stores or offices in which music is part of the ambiance, employees have a choice–they can either learn to live with it, or not work in that kind of place. That sounds harsh, but it’s true! Perhaps you can have music in the break room or in a special area of the workplace, but not blaring in everyone’s ears.

I can relate to not wanting to hear music all the time. But special events seem to call for an exception to such policies.

We seem to be in a time where we feel that if an employee doesn’t like something we have to jump to fix it, even though no one else cares. When you’re talking about legal issues–EEO issues especially–that is the case. But in other areas it most certainly is not.

Last week I was contacted by a supervisor who worked in an office setting. An employee there said the proposed new paint for her office would make her sick, because it was a color she didn’t like, and she associated with an unhappy time in her life. The supervisor wanted to know if they could legally paint it anyway!

Your situation is not so different. At what point does caring for the concerns of an employee become being held hostage by that employee?

I hope you will able to work with HR to find some permanent resolutions to this issue. But, before thinking of HR as your only resource, make sure you are talking to those above you in the chain of command–your manager and others above him or her. If your organization has a legal advisor, talk to that person. If your organization has branch offices or work areas, maybe supervisors there can assist you.

Best wishes in this situation! It sounds as though you are very capable of finding solutions, and only need the support of your organization to make them work most effectively. If you can be the kind of supervisor who is fair and honest with each person, perhaps your influence alone, will help make this better. Keep your focus on the work, not on individuals. Be as unemotional about it as possible.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.