Subordinate called Manager an Idiot

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about name calling: One of my staff members said I was an idiot in direct conversation.

I have just been told by the manager of another department that one of my staff members said I was an idiot in direct conversation. How should I handle that? Background: While handling an issue, brought to my attention by a staff member, I called the manager of another department for help.

The issue would be one that impacted both departments, so I felt that decision was warranted.At the end of the day, the manager that I called stopped by my desk to tell me that not five minutes after we solved the problem, my staff member called to say that she knew what she was doing and didn’t know why I called. Then she said I was an idiot! This manager felt I should know.Can I write this employee up for making a derogatory comment about me to another manager?

Signed, Frustrated and Upset

Dear Frustrated and Upset:

Any time I have felt my guts clinch in anger and resentment, as I’m sure yours did, I have found it useful to focus on tomorrow, next week and next month. If you write up this employee, it may or may not stick–but the fact that she said you were an idiot will float out and about for sure.If you don’t write her up, you can still deal with it, but in a more positive way. And, tomorrow and next week and next month, you won’t be dealing with the fallout from this.

First, I wonder what the other manager said to support the management team and show loyalty to you, when the employee made that remark? That is something that should be discussed as well. Maybe not specifically, but at least enough to remind managers that you have a common mission. Perhaps the relationships between managers is such that employees feel they will be welcomed if they make comments of that nature.

If you have a manager above you, I suggest you discuss this with that person, to get his or her perspective as well. At least by discussing it, you can find out if you have their support for whatever you intend to do. At the same time you can talk about the fact that this is symptomatic of several problems–the manager situation and also the behavior of the employee. When you have calmed down a bit and feel that you have the support of your manager, talk to the employee. There is no emergency about it. If she knows you know, it won’t hurt for her to have time to feel concerned.When you talk to her begin by telling her what you were told that she said. Get her remarks about that, to ensure it is correct. Ask her what her thought process was for going to the manager. Clearly she didn’t understand your concerns.

Consider asking her what she thinks was your motivation for calling the manager about the problem the two of you were discussing. Help her consider your viewpoint. You don’t need to convince her of it, just state it and move on.You might want to suggest that she talked to the other manager because she didn’t want the manager to think she didn’t know what she was doing. (I think that’s what it was. Plus, a little bit of wanting to say that she is smarter than you.) According to the situation, tell her that you weren’t doubting her, you simply were doing what you are supposed to do to be part of a larger team.

Then, move on fairly quickly and tell her that you were disappointed in her reaction and hope that she will feel more confident about herself and you if a similar situation happens in the future.Then, move to the big issue: You were told she said you were an idiot. That implies that she dislikes you, doesn’t respect you and thinks others would care so little about the impact of that kind of discourtesy, that she could get by with it.Here is where I would react differently than some might. I don’t see any reason to push this issue very much. If she truly feels that badly about you, this conversation won’t change her mind. If she doesn’t she’ll probably be apologizing profusely anyway.So, try this approach: Remind her that when you work in a close environment all of you have to be respectful of each other. You wouldn’t describe her that way and she shouldn’t describe you or others that way.

You may want to use the phrase I often use: We don’t own your attitude, but your paycheck rents your behavior and performance. Say again that you were disappointed that she thought it was OK to say something that hurtful about you. (Don’t worry about saying hurtful. That’s a good word and sometimes gets the point across better than pretending it didn’t hurt!) Whatever she says in reply, you can say that one reason you are meeting with her is to make sure she knows that no matter how frustrated she is, she is expected to talk courteously about other employees including other managers.

I like to bring these interviews down to a question about the future. “So, Lisa, the next time you are frustrated with something you don’t understand that I have done, what is your response going to be?” Get the words out of her mouth, that she will talk to you about it.Then you can wrap things up and close it. “Good! That’s what I wanted to hear. I think you know that if this happens again I’ll respond to it a lot more strongly. But, at this point, my intention is for us to move forward from here, knowing we won’t have this situation happen again.”Then, get up and walk her to the door and mean it about moving forward.Your goal is to model the professionalism and friendly courtesy you had expected from her.

If it’s comfortable for you, a “Big Sister or Big Brother” approach is sometimes useful: Concerned, stern enough to be serious, but caring enough to be willing to accept an apology or close to it.”If she continues to be unpleasant, that is something else. At that point, consider this response, according to your organization’s requirements: Stop the interview and tell her you will talk to her later, after you discuss the matter with your manager and HR. There is no point in getting into a back and forth argument.

Hopefully it won’t come to that!I’m betting the employee wishes she had been more circumspect about her remarks, and however she feels about you, she will wish her remarks hadn’t been repeated.I don’t think she will lose respect for you if you do not come down heavy about it. On the contrary I think she might feel you have been generous and she may be appreciative. The important point for you is to make sure she understands that is not acceptable in the future and you will take more serious action. (Not that you will be “forced to take more action”, just that you will.) Then, get this matter cleared up with other managers so there is an understanding of how each of you should respond to such things in the future.

One last thought: This will have been talked about in the general office setting. Others will be watching to see what happens. Be the example in that way as well. You do not have to be extra nice to the employee–that wouldn’t be appropriate either, because she did do something wrong. But, you can be courteous and supportive of her just as you are of others. A sure-fire way to get people off the topic is to get them back to work! If there are any projects to be done, get them started and keep everyone focused.I hope this rather detailed response is helpful. I know how frustrating it is, and how important it is to keep it in perspective. How you handle this can say a lot about your self control and management style. Make it highly professional.Best wishes!

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.