Negotiation Skills Company, Inc.
Negotiation Skills Company, Inc.

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My Subordinate Is A Nightmare, But I Don't Know How To Awake From It

From: Bobby, Singapore

Question: I have a female assistant who is younger than me. She behaves well in front of top management but treats others (including me) according to her mood. As she handles benefits and personnel related matters (she is a personnel officer) most of the other staff have to accept her 'whims'; and 'mood swings'. She sometimes speaks rudely to them and talks down to low-level staff (manual workers) especially when it comes to administering polices. She acts as if she has been empowered with all the rights and authorities to carry out these tasks without consideration for others' emotional feelings.

Some colleagues even told me that she is the 'lady boss' of our department and I have received several complaints about her attitude and high-handed ways of doing things from other staff. She is also a stickler for rules and everything must be done by the book right up to the last letter. She even questions my decisions. In short she has over steps her line of authority.

Some of other her shortcomings include:

  • She does not have the tact of handling personnel issues when it comes to inter communication matters.
  • She is not suitable for the job (she has already been told by her previous supervisor and the supervisor has also spoken to me about her)
  • Makes own decisions without consulting me
  • She refused to accept that she is having difficulties working with people despite being told by me on more than one occasion
  • Uses sarcastic remarks like 'You mean you don't know what this policy is about after working 10 years with the company?'
  • Points out your mistakes without tact and thinks she is very smart
  • Shuns responsibilities and choose the types of jobs she prefers
  • Spends a long time on private telephone phone calls
  • Makes mistakes in daily work

    How can I tell her that she is not suitable for the job and that she should seriously consider looking for alternative employment soon before the Management issues her The Ultimatum. In fact, I have even received complaints about her from top management that she makes mistakes in her work and spends too much time on the phone.

    I cannot stand her behaviour any longer. As I am relatively new at first I had to rely on her knowledge and experience to assist me in making decisions and the daily running of the department I had little choice but to put up with her. Please advise.

    Response: The list of your assistant's many failings as an employee is remarkable. You have made it very clear that she does not belong in her present position -- and probably should leave the company.

    Very often we find it troublesome to give someone bad news about themselves because we do not want to cause them to lose face. This may well influence your feelings about giving your assistant a warning about her situation. What you must say to yourself is that, according to all that you have written about her, she has demonstrated no compunctions at all about causing other people to lose face. Ask yourself, "Is her face any more worth saving than that of the people she has been insulting?"

    Clearly you need to consider what you are allowed to communicate to her under your company's HR rules as well as any governmental regulations that govern the possible termination of employment. Once you know what you are allowed to say or do under those circumstances, you have an obligation to yourself, your colleagues, and your company to reduce the human and other costs incurred as a consequence of your assistant's bad behavior.

    If there are specific corporate standards that she has broken or if she has exceeded the authority in her written job description, there is nothing wrong with making a copy of the governing documentation and underlining or highlighting the rules she has broken. Then you can call her into your office, tell her that those infractions have taken place and give her a deadline for submitting a written document outlining the actions she will take to curb her unacceptable behavior.

    Frankly, given what you have indicated, I doubt that she will respond favorably -- or wisely.

    You could also take the description you have sent me, do appropriate editing, give it to her and ask her how she will modify her behavior. You could also say that failure to do so will give you no choice but to accept the judgment of higher management and ask her to leave.

    All of these are more or less diplomatic attempts to deal with a situation that, for all practical purposes, has gone beyond the usual bounds of diplomacy. In spite of your assistant's failure to act in a civilized manner, you should endeavor to do so because your own reputation must be preserved if you are to continue to be an effective leader on the job.

    You and your relevant superiors should have a private meeting to discuss how the situation should be handled. Do not be surprised if you are handed the responsibility to solve the problem; no one likes to be the 'bad guy'. Find out what sorts of back up there will be; it would be terrible for you if you were to fire your assistant only to discover she has a protector who overrules you.

    Look at who the stakeholders are in the situation: yourself, your subordinates, your peers, your superiors, your assistant, customers, people who own the company, etc. Take stock of their interests -- who has what to gain from the possible outcomes and why it is important to them for a given conclusion to be reached. Remember that your assistant is on the list. Her interests must be taken into account. What can she gain under the circumstances: severance pay, a letter of recommendation, an extension of health insurance or other benefits, or some face-saving mechanism such as allowing her to resign rather than being kicked out of the firm? Perhaps a party to celebrate her years of service would do the trick. You must listen carefully to what you can learn about her interests. Whether what she wants is in your own interest - or that of your company - must be considered. For example, a letter of recommendation from your company may be what she wants; most likely all you can deliver in good conscience is a letter describing her duties and the length of her employment - without any praise that might mislead potential new employers.

    Read over the issues you raised in your question to me just before you communicate with your assistant. Remind yourself of the good and bad consequences that can result from your action -- or your inaction. Think about 'what's the worst that can happen?' -- and be prepared for it. If you have done a good job of research and have investigated all the possibilities, there is a far greater likelihood you will achieve a favorable result.

    Good luck; you may need it.

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