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by Mike Bishop

Dear Rita,

Last year we hired a senior-level employee to fill a role that had previously been like a revolving door. This employee has done good work for us all along, in a position serving an important function in our organization. As a result, we recognize and highlight this employee’s contribution to our team quite often, both publicly and privately.

Recently, after one of these public tributes, some of our employees came forward, very upset, with complaints about working for this valuable employee. We have now received credible reports of a general attitude of condescension and contempt towards subordinates, an ongoing display of arrogance, and repeated accusations of incompetence, usually delivered with demeaning language.

There are also reports of this supervisor reacting to what they interpret as staff criticism or resistance to directions in a way we can only describe as “retaliatory.” For example:

  1. Neglect to follow through on promises to staff that they would be given high-profile projects

  2. Exclusion, without explanation, from important team and staff meetings

  3. Reference to staff members who have fallen out of favor with terms such as jerks and idiots

 

This conduct has already led to three long-term and capable employees quitting, and we suspect others will follow. We know we need to deal with this situation aggressively, and we do have specific policies that prohibit this kind of behavior. But we also know that we cannot afford to lose this supervisor, most particularly not at this time of the year. Among their responsibilities is overseeing several critical components of upcoming events. We also cannot afford to deal with yet another case of turnover in this critical and high-profile position.

We aren’t sure what to do next. Can you give us some ideas to help us to handle this difficult situation?

 

Sincerely,

Feeling in a pickle

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Dear Pickle,

It appears you have an individual in this position who is what’s known in the HR world as an abusive supervisor or, sometimes, simply a bully.

While the law has yet to prohibit the ill treatment of employees unrelated to a specific set of conditions (such as race, color, religion, disability, age, or gender) or activities (such as organizing or joining a union), there is legal support for deterring abusive conduct in the workplace. For example, in California, as part of required sexual harassment training, supervisors must now receive training designed to prevent abusive and bullying conduct.

While this conduct is not legally prohibited at this point, it can nonetheless prove deeply damaging to an organization. It can erode staff morale, increase workers’ compensation claims, and, in the event that such conduct is consistently directed to one or more members of protected classes, often lead to, or can be evidence of, unlawful harassment and discrimination.

While the courts have been known to rule that the intent of the law is not to impose a code of civility in the workplace, the courts and the legislatures alike are recognizing a need to ensure that workplaces both expect and require their employees to treat one another with dignity and respect.

This recognition is not an attempt to impose a code of civility. Rather, this recognition is an effort to allow an employer to use common decency and common sense in regulating its workplace culture and its behavioral expectations. Consider this as well: As a nonprofit organization—whose mission and very existence are tied to a desire to enhance and benefit society—why should you make an allowance for this kind of disrespectful, abusive, and bullying behavior by any employee, especially a supervisor? The role of the supervisor is to lead by example.

To put it another way, if you maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and similar types of legally risky conduct, you should maintain a zero-tolerance policy against abusive and bullying conduct as well, and that goes for all employees, supervisors, and staff alike. If an organization already has such a policy in place, as you mention you do, it needs to be enforced—meaningfully and effectively—regardless of who the offender is.

From your summary of the circumstances, it doesn’t sound as though you have confronted this supervisor about this prohibited behavior and the policy violations. In many cases, failure to promptly and effectively address violations with the offending employee reinforces their sense that they are indispensable to the organization and thus impervious to criticism. Such a belief can then empower an abusive employee to continue with the abuse.

It’s also important to realize that in this case the victimized staff have likely also drawn the conclusion that this supervisor is de facto invulnerable and now are coming to you to restore a sense of common decency and common sense in your organization. This is a significant step they have taken, one that demonstrates faith in the organization itself.

Now, the big question—how do you approach this?

It’s important to remember that you already have policies in place that set the standard of behavior. This is a good place to start.

For dealing with this supervisor, consider these suggestions:

  1. Bring these complaints to the supervisor’s attention, but be prepared to deal with denial, protest, justification, disbelief, accusations, and other similar responses.

  2. If your budget allows, hire a coach for the manager to help improve interpersonal skills, enhance emotional regulation, and sharpen self-awareness.

  3. Make sure that the supervisor’s job description includes a requirement that all employees must treat one another with dignity and respect.

  4. Ensure that your employee handbook has a workplace conduct policy that includes anti-harassment, anti-hostile work environment, and anti-bullying. Describe how the company handles violations of this policy. You can find help creating this from services like BLR or SHRM.

  5. Consider a formal investigation into these allegations with full notice of the complaints to the accused supervisor.

  6. Assure both the complainants and the accused supervisor that any acts of retaliation will not be tolerated.

  7. Offer Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services to the affected employees to address the emotional and psychological consequences of the treatment to which they were exposed.

  8. Be prepared to take effective action if the investigation substantiates the allegations, including discipline.

  9. Even if the allegations are not substantiated, require the supervisor to submit to harassment and abusive conduct prevention training.

 

Then, the core of the issue. It’s not just now, not just with this one supervisor, that you must be vigilant. You must handle this situation and all similar situations decisively and effectively, and it’s important to recognize that sometimes the only way to deal with the problem without fear of recurrence is to remove the offender.

If the offender is a long-time employee, a colleague, or a friend, you may need to manage conflict of priorities or loyalties. Moreover, when the offender is a particularly productive or important contributor to the overall operation of the agency, possibly even a member of senior management, the stakes can feel high and the motivation for retaining the employee strong. However, when making decisions regarding unacceptable behavior and imposing consequences for policy violations, you must set aside loyalties and practical concerns in deference to the greater good and long-term goals.

Perhaps the best way to look at this situation is to remember that no one is too important, too indispensable, or too essential to an employer’s business to escape discipline for zero-tolerance policy violations, and employers must demonstrate the courage to handle these situations properly.

As a nonprofit, you need to do the right thing. And you already know what that is.