Supervisor Under Verbal Attack!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors aboutĀ  verbal abuse.

I’m a supervisor who has been repeatedly attacked verbally by an employee. She curses me out and threatens my job. What should I do?

Signed, On the Defensive

DearĀ On the Defensive:

The short answer to what you should do about an employee who curses at you, threatens your job and is discourteous is this: Take supervisory action to stop her unacceptable behavior immediately. Apparently you haven’t done that yet! Or, if you have tried, it hasn’t been effective or successful. It may be that you don’t feel you have the authority or will not be supported, or you may simply not like the unpleasantness of telling her to stop and having more arguments and anger.

Whatever the cause, you need to find a solution. You’ve probably already lost some credibility with other employees. Don’t let this continue.Use this as a guideline:

If, before you were promoted to supervisor, you were asked by an interview panel, “Pretend you’ve been promoted to supervisor and an employee gets mad at you, cusses at you and threatens your job. What will you do?”You can bet, if you wanted to get promoted, you wouldn’t say, “I guess I’d let it happen repeatedly and hope it will get better.” You’d say, “That would be very inappropriate and I’d have to stop it immediately so it didn’t create problems for the entire workplace.”

You don’t say what is the size of the business or if there is an HR section or how many layers of management you have above you. However, if there is anyone at all above you, you need to work with that person to ensure that the employee never again talks to you or anyone else in an inappropriate way, without having negative sanctions imposed by the organization.

So, the first thing to do is to develop a short report that will help you and others have a clear picture of what you’ve been dealing with. Among the questions to answer in your report are: When did she start working there? When was the first time she was discourteous to you or cussed at you or threatened you? How many time has it happened? When was the last time? The answers to those questions will make it clear that serious action is needed.Be prepared for your manager to ask you, “What did you do about it each time?” If you can’t show specific and documented things you did, don’t be surprised if they say you have to start with only a warning the next time. They may also tell you that you have been wrong to let it go. Accept that and keep focused on the behavior of the employee.If, on the other hand, you’ve done your best to stop her behavior and you can prove it, you may be told by your managers that there will be no more warnings and more serious action is required.Also be prepared for your manager to take a different view of it than you do.

He or she may think you are equally at fault or that the employee is just having a bad time, etc. etc. That is when it will be very important to be able to discuss the negative results of the employee’s behavior: It’s disruptive, it’s insubordinate, it harms the workplace environment,etc.Although her behavior is wrong, no matter what the cause, it might be worthwhile to have a list of the various reasons she has been upset. She probably resents being given directions or feels that you aren’t making good decisions. Cite those reasons in your report to your manager. If possible say what you have done or said to try to explain the situations and calm the employee down and what her responses have been.Quote the employee exactly, don’t just say what you think she meant or what she said, in a general way. Quote her, word for word, including obscenities, so the manager can “hear” what you were dealing with.

If it will help, describe the employee’s facial expression, volume of voice or anything else that can help your manager better understand the situation. Then, ask for support in stopping the behavior and ask what sanctions would be approved and how the matter should be approached.Some organizations have clearly defined procedures, requiring that discipline start with a warning. Others might say that low level steps can be jumped over if the employee’s behavior is especially problematic. Find that out before you try to do something. Don’t threaten something unless you already have been told you can do it, or you know you can do it, based on prior experiences.

Once you have your report together and have talked about it to your manager or to HR, and have a plan of action in mind, stay strong about it. Don’t make excuses for her or find reasons why a situation should be overlooked. It is never, ever, appropriate for an employee to curse at a supervisor in anger or to threaten the supervisor’s job–or to curse at anyone in the workplace. So, the very next time is time to take formal action, not another warning time.

While all of that is going on, make sure you are communicating and interacting with other employees, especially your best overall employees. It’s easy to get so focused on one problem employee that you ignore the other steady, dependable and courteous employees. You don’t have to go overboard with commendations and recognition, just say thank you, communicate often and in a friendly way, and let them feel like strong members of the team–because they are.

The bottom line is that the rude employee must be told clearly that she is to never again use rude language to you or others and that if she does she will receive a negative sanction that will become part of her record.Next is the challenge of figuring out what to do about the causes of her outbursts. If there is a element of truth in her rants, those should be considered and situations corrected if needed. If she is angry over unfairness, that should be remedied or the situation explained as clearly as possible. If she is angry because she feels you have not done your job appropriately, confront that for yourself and commit to learning the job and your responsibilities and authority then acting on them. (As in this case.)

It may be that the primary person in the wrong is the angry and ranting employee and no one else even partially responsible. If so, stopping her behavior will be a very positive thing for the rest of the workplace. If she is only one among many who are angry or acting up, you will most certainly need to work with your manager or with HR to get things organized and focused on work.Best wishes to you as you deal with this challenge. Remember to stand strong. You wouldn’t talk to your supervisor in that way and would expect to be sanctioned if you did. Don’t let her do something that everyone knows is wrong and harmful for the well-being of the workplace. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

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.