ask a boss

‘My Employee Has a Bad Attitude’

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Dear Boss,

I manage an employee with an attitude problem. Kevin is a couple years out of college, and he has management ambitions. He did excellent work for several months after he was hired, and the quality of his work isn’t the issue here. The problems started about a year ago when I promoted another team member with a little more experience and a lot more professionalism, Kate, to team lead. He was angry, and he showed it by acting like a child — pouting through meetings or derailing them with side conversations, making jokes about wasting company money, and telling us all about how drunk he’d been that weekend. He spent a team lunch staring at our intern silently because he thought it was funny (the intern was uncomfortable). He also came to me directly for permission to do something after Kate told him he couldn’t, and I assented without realizing that she had already told him no, for perfectly valid reasons. 

Kate addressed these issues individually with Kevin, but there always seemed to be something else. I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with Kevin a few months ago, and we all thought he was back on track, until recently. Not long ago, our company began to require more meetings, and when a (different) team member politely complained there were too many, Kevin guffawed and yelled “BURN!” in the middle of the meeting. 

Personally, I’ve had enough. I decided to manage him directly from now on. I also went to my manager (Randall) to recommend that Kevin be given some form of disciplinary action, but Randall isn’t so sure this behavior rises to the level of a corrective action. How else can I get through to Kevin and help him see that he’s got to behave more professionally if he ever wants to be a manager himself? 

The measure of your success as a manager in a situation like this isn’t, “I get through to the employee and make him change his behavior, no matter what.” You should try to get through to him, of course, but whether or not that ultimately happens is up to him, not you. Instead, success in this situation means that you talk with him about the problem forthrightly, make clear how serious it is, spell out your expectations for what needs to change, and follow through with consequences if that doesn’t happen.

It sounds like you’ve already done the first stages of this: You’ve met with Kevin and had (what sounds like) a serious conversation with him. It’s important to be sure that you were absolutely clear when you talked to him — that you were explicit both about what needs to change and about how critical the problem is. Too often, managers sugarcoat their feedback out of a desire to be nice or a discomfort with hard conversations, and as a result, the employee doesn’t hear the message as clearly as the manager thinks they’ve delivered it. So if there’s any chance you haven’t been crystal clear in the past, make sure it’s unmistakable now.

When you talk to Kevin, try language like this: “We’ve talked previously about you disrupting meetings, intentionally making people uncomfortable, and disregarding clear instructions from management above you. The behavior improved for a while but is returning now. For example, (insert examples). This is disruptive to other people, and it’s not something I’m willing to have on our team. Because we’ve already addressed this previously, my concerns now are serious ones. What’s going on?”

You’re ending with that question because it’s worth hearing Kevin’s perspective. While it feels pretty unlikely, it’s possible there’s some extenuating circumstance that will impact the way you proceed. Some sorts of things (like mental or physical health challenges or dealing with personal stress) wouldn’t change the bottom line — which is that he needs to behave professionally at work — but they’d change the tenor of the conversation you have with him about it.

But assuming you don’t hear anything that alters your assessment of the situation, then next you should explain what the consequences will be if he doesn’t fix the problems. In order to do that, you first need to decide in your own mind what those consequences are. Is this something you’d fire him over if it continues unchanged? Or is it not at that level but still something that will limit the type of projects he gets (for example, maybe you can’t put him in front of clients or trust him on high-profile work)? Will it prevent him from being promoted or affect the sorts of raises he can earn? You will want to be able to spell out the consequences for him, and also ready to follow through with whatever action you determine is appropriate if it turns out to be necessary.

But what’s more important than getting through to Kevin is getting through to Randall, your boss.

If you’re going to manage Kevin effectively, you’ve got to have the authority to impose those consequences. Having that authority is fundamental to your ability to manage a team, and without it, you can’t do your job as a manager.

If you don’t have the power to say “this must change,” then you’re stuck trying to cajole Kevin into seeing things your way and just hoping he comes around. And if he ever realizes that you don’t have the authority to do more than just try to persuade him, that will tremendously undermine you as his boss — and given Kevin’s behavior so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if that made the problems worse.

So there’s an important conversation for you to have with Randall about exactly what your role really is. If Randall won’t let you hold employees accountable to the standards you set for your team … well, you’ve got a much bigger problem than Kevin.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Employee Has a Bad Attitude’