Supervisor Tells an Interrupting Subordinate to Shut Up

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a boss who orders a non-involved employee to butt out: Is it ever appropriate for a supervisor to tell a subordinate to “shut up”?

In a recent workplace altercation, an employee came upon the first line supervisor discussing an issue with a maintenance technician, the employee butted in offering his opinion. The supervisor asked him to stop interjecting several times, yet he continued to interject himself until ultimately the supervisor told him to “shut up” and leave the area.

The employee left the area but continued to be talk disrespectfully about the supervisor. The employee has been given a written reprimand on his conduct that he claims supervisor disrespected him when he told him to “shut up”. In your opinion, did the supervisor act properly or did he play a part in escalating the situation? Is it ever appropriate for a supervisor to tell a subordinate to “shut up”?

Signed, What’s Right?

Dear What’s Right?:

I assume you want an opinion about what was “right” for a supervisor to do in this particular situation? Why? Do you want support for the supervisor or the coworker who was told to shut up? Will this workplace doctor’s opinion add to your opinion of who was right or wrong in that situation? If that is what prompts you question, I suggest that my answer will increase the animosity that already exists between the shut up employee and the supervisor.

Who’s right or wrong is not so important as it is to create talk that is focused on preventing and solving work related matters. Hopefully, there is a more constructive reason why you ask: did the supervisor act properly or did he play a part in escalating the situation? Is it ever appropriate for a supervisor to tell a subordinate to “shut up”?

Yes, hopefully seeing that an altercation escalates to a shut up order has caused you to reflect on alternative ways of handling conflict. Therefore, I am not giving you a right or wrong. Rather here are several questions to consider:

· Was the altercation one that should have been resolved on the spot or more privately?

· Was it one that involved more than the supervisor and the maintenance technician?

· Was it one that had best been addressed immediately?

· Could the interrupting employee have been invited to state her/his opinion and then to leave?

· Might the supervisor have asked the interjecting employee to step aside and then spoken to him firmly and politely asked him to meet with him later about this matter?

· Are there other ways to stop an argument such as to say, “Let’s go to the side, the office, or conference room about this?’

· Can “shut up” be expressed in other ways such as raising one’s hand to a “stop” position?

· What is the history of altercations within your work area? What provokes them? How are they handled?

· How are job assignments made?

· What opportunity is available for discussion about them?

· Might argument about work matters be healthy; so long as it focuses on finding effective ways to prevent and correct them and not on blame?

· Might it be wise for a supervisor to hammer out a set of do and don’t rules about how to make their talk effective? That is to say, might it make for a more effective and satisfied work group to talk about how we talk, when we talk, where we talk, why we talk?

· Will gossip about the shut up provide a lesson about how to deal with conflict?

How you answer these questions should provide grist for you thinking about what supervisors and those they supervise might do to shape a worker-friendly productive workplace. I am interested to learn what you think is right about a shut up after you’ve had time to think through your answers to these questions. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and isn’t that what we each want for our work groups and workplaces?

William Gorden