Employee Exhibits Bizarre Behavior

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to deal with an explosive hysterical employee:

I co-manage a very busy, extremely stressful customer service department of 15 people. I have been in this position for 2 years. We “inherited” this very high maintenance employee. I feel it necessary to give a brief history. About a year ago, she had a major meltdown in the midst of the department, loudly accusing others of not doing their jobs, yelling and sobbing and making a huge scene. To make a long story short, my partner and I drove her home (she was unfit to stay or drive).

She ended up later apologizing to everyone and confidentially shared that she was on medication because she was subject to such behavior. However, she had been sick and was unable to keep her medication in her system. This incident was never brought up again. She has had other behavior problems since, which have been informally addressed.

Recently, due to an onslaught of co-worker justified complaints, my partner and I outlined a “verbal” warning on paper, listing all of all the issues and called her in our office to review. We prefaced the conversation that performance-wise, she was a good employee and the issues we wanted to discuss were to be viewed as constructive. When she looked at the paper, she went absolutely ballistic, loudly stating “Oh my God, you’re giving me a verbal warning”. She sobbed, yelled, pointed her finger at us and generally exhibited very unstable behavior throughout the entire meeting.

We were able to review all the issues, however, she accused the entire department of hating her, stating that what we had outlined were lies, that there was a conspiracy to get rid of her and we had a hidden agenda. She threatened the department stating, “You better pray to God that they are out of here before I leave this office, because I can’t guarantee I can control myself”, and stating other bizarre statements, such as “what goes around comes around and I pray to God that he comes down here and gets even with everyone”. (I would also like to add that she had her arms raised to the heavens while making this statement – very dramatic.)

She asked if she needed a lawyer, and made demands such as wanting to meet with the entire department. I feel my partner and I remained calm and professional. She ended up storming out of our office, sobbing through the department and into our HR department managers’ office. I also need to add that our office walls are thin and the department could overhear her loud exclamations and sobbing. This just happened Friday. She was still in the HR office at the end of the work day and this situation will have to be dealt with this coming week. Any words of wisdom and advice will be greatly appreciated. Frustrated in PA

Signed, Frustrated About Bizarre Employee

Dear Frustrated About Bizarre Employee:

There is ample experience in the workplace to indicate that behavior such as you describe could result in violence. If that happens you and your organization are both liable. It seems wise to ask HR if they would support dismissal of this potentially violent person. It would be one thing to say that she has emotional problems but they are under control. However, what you describe makes it clear her problems could explode into violent action at any time. Even if her emotional problems are being treated, there is not a legal mandate to retain someone who is not performing appropriately and that fact is documented. What you can’t do in most situations is fire someone ONLY because they have an emotional condition that is being treated. If you have been documenting behavioral issues all along, you should have several things that indicate she is distracting others from their focus on work with her emotional outbursts and inappropriate behavior. Hopefully her evaluations have reflected all of this. If not, that would be a sad and sorry thing indeed. But you still could act on these recent outbursts. Note what you have done already to try to counsel with her.Then, ask HR to be present when you talk to her again, so they can see her behavior.

I can perhaps understand that her performance in some parts of her work is acceptable, but “performance” is a package deal. An employee is not a good performer if they can’t get along with others or if they create problems. Don’t be so kind that you end up painting yourself in a corner. If you tell her this isn’t about performance, it implies that performance is only customer service. But performance is how one performs in the big picture of helping the organization move forward. Is she helping the organization move forward by acting as she does with others and creating this kind of distraction for you and another supervisor? Actually, she is lucky she is still employed if her behavior has been as outrageous and bizarre as you describe.

She is not guaranteed a job and she clearly doesn’t value this one enough to try to be conciliatory. She seems to think she is untouchable–and is seems she has been treated that way. If you present this as a liability as well as a workplace safety issue, you should be able to at least get a solid response from HR about what they intend to do and what is a plan of action.In the meantime, if you have to speak to her before you can get something organized, be civil, but not placating. Your job as a supervisor is to change her current behavior and make it the way your organization expects. Extreme helpfulness has clearly not been successful. Try simply stating the facts without emotion and without babying her through the process.Describe what she has done and what she must change in the future. It’s up to her to determine how to do that–you are not a psychologist or a counselor. If you have an EAP program you may want to recommend that. But her behavior must improve immediately. And the moment she starts yelling or crying, tell her the interview is over and you will be documenting that she was not willing to make the needed changes. Send her home if you have to, but don’t allow her to threaten anyone or continue an emotional outburst.

Call the police if you have to, to have her escorted out.I feel very strongly about this because I’ve seen the ill effects of tolerating it too many times. It’s not that I’ve seen workplace violence repeatedly–although I’ve seen enough of that–it’s that I’ve seen people emotionally hold a workplace hostage with their bizarre behavior and no one wants to take it on. Employees become “high maintenance” because someone is willing to maintain them constantly. Pity the poor employee who does his or her job and doesn’t get to be coddled every day! I hope you will look out for the best interests of the other employees and stop this cycle of wrong behavior. Either insist that she improve or take action to have her dismissed. Wouldn’t it be a pleasure to have an employee you didn’t have to tip-toe around? I would be very interested in hearing how this turns out. If you have the time and wish to do so, keep us informed.

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.