How to Deal With a Disrespectful Employee

It’s an all-too-common scenario which can be found in all workplaces across the world: employee A is the ideal, dream employee. He’s the soul of solicitude, matchless in his meticulous approach to whatever task he’s given, exceedingly popular, smart and a clear candidate for promotion. In other words, the perfect employee. Then there’s employee B, who’s toxic. Put simply, the two couldn’t be further apart if you’d sent one to a deep space asteroid. Employee B hates you and disrespects you with a passion. Born with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, he’s venal, arrogant, loathsome and universally disliked.

But you can’t get rid of him.

See Also: How to Fire Employees

Employee B just happens to be the best data scientist your company’s got. He believes he’s smarter than you and goes out of his way to put you down. Almost every interaction with him is punctuated with snide asides, sighs of exasperation or rude comments. In other words, employee B is your worst nightmare.

Here are a few approaches you can take to deal with disrespect in the workplace.

1. Be Clear About Your Own Contribution to the Faulty Relationship

It may be that you have been behaving in an exemplary manner towards your direct report. It may also be that you have inadvertently contributed to or invited your direct report’s behaviour: you may have communicated to him that it is OK to behave as he does. For example, if you’ve failed in stopping this type of behaviour than you should be sure that he thinks it’s ok to behave as he does. If you are in part to blame for inviting your employee’s disrespect it’s important to acknowledge this, at least to yourself, as it’s the first step to change.

2. Focus on Specific Behaviours, Not Feelings

If your direct report’s disrespect manifests itself in specific behaviours such as turning up late to meetings, missing deadlines and appointments, then these are behaviours you can focus on as a legitimate basis for change. Focus on these behaviours and, in particular, the problems they are creating within the department. The temptation is to talk about the impact of his behaviours and attitudes on you, for example you could describe how they make you feel dismissed, disrespected. Unfortunately, doing this could be interpreted by your direct report as an attack on his character. He’ll simply ‘man the barricades’ and throw missiles at you in a tit-for-tat exchange. Or he’ll give you an arm’s length list of reasons why you’re wrong about him. Instead, identify the behaviours that are not acceptable and which will not, therefore, be tolerated. Set crystal clear expectations; after all, you’re the boss and that’s in your job description. One caveat here is to watch your own behaviour: model the behaviours you wish to see.

3. Meet One-to-One to Discuss Your Working Relationship

Arrange to meet your direct report and, when you do, follow the maxim of ‘seeking to understand before being understood’. Be open about why you wish to meet him, i.e. to discuss ways to improve your working relationship. Here’s an example approach to the dialogue, a conversation with a direct report called Steve:

“Steve, I’d like to chat about the way we’re working together. I’d like to share my point of view about how we’re working together and highlight some of the areas I think, between us, we can improve. To start with, what are your thoughts on our working relationship? In your view, what do you feel is working well, and what would you like to work better?”

The point at which Steve starts speaking marks the start of your active listening. Here are some possible outcomes from your discussion:

  •  Steve might try to flip the discussion by making it all about you: “Let’s talk about what you should be changing, shall we?” or something of that ilk. If that is his response, you can refocus the conversation by responding, “I’m going to talk in a while, but I’d like you go first.”
  • Steve might give you a version of, “Everything is fine; I’m working fine/I’ve had no complaints from anyone” in response. If this is the case, know that you have given him the benefit of responding first, which is a powerful expression of courtesy and respect. Paraphrase his response, for example, “So you don’t think anything needs to change between us?”, then share your own perspective: “Steve, I have a different view, and I’d like to talk about the specific behaviours I’m concerned about and which need to be improved...”
  • Once you’ve spoken, Steve might accept responsibility for his behaviours. If this happens, it’s important to thank him for the acknowledgement and, if possible, segue to any other behaviours you’d like him to change. It’s also possible that Steve might give you insights into why he behaves as he does, information which you can then use to improve your communications with him. It could be, for example, that Steve lacks self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It could be that he is experiencing considerable upheaval in his private life and is struggling to separate his home life from his work life, and this is manifesting itself in unpleasant, unacceptable behaviours at work. It could also be that Steve has a chronic lack of self-respect and, as a result, struggles to give respect to others.

The key here is to listen without judgment and without interrupting (also known as active listening). Seek to truly focus on understanding his view of the situation. Doing this will lower any defences he puts up and furnish you with really valuable insights into his behaviour. Once you’ve listened to his perspective, demonstrate that you have truly listened by summarising what he’s said, and do so with the utmost sincerity.

Having listened and summarised Steve’s view of the working relationship, the next step is to ask him for suggestions. What are his ideas for improving the status quo? Discuss these, and gain his agreement to change. It’s vital that the suggestion comes from him, and not from you: this will encourage his ownership of the change that needs to happen. Ensure you arrange a time to meet again to see how things have progressed – doing this underscores your mutual commitment to change.

If you’re in a supervisory or management position, there will come a time when you encounter a worker who does not respect you. Giving corrective feedback isn’t easy, but it’s part and parcel of the job of being a manager. And it takes patience and skill to do give corrective feedback effectively: you have to ensure, for example, that you not only communicate the changes that people need to make, but that they also willingly take ownership of the changes.

Of course, there will be some employees who give assurances about change but appear to struggle to see those changes through to completion. In these instances, those employees should be encouraged to reconsider whether the company is the best cultural fit for them, assuming that there is, at least, a technical fit. Companies seek to recruit candidates that are the best technical and cultural fit for positions; moreover, candidates must abide to both the written and unwritten rules of what constitutes professional behaviour.

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Have you experienced problems in your place of work with disrespectful direct reports or even coworkers? If so, what strategies or techniques have you successfully used to deal with any problems that arise? Share them in the comments box below.

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