asserting authority with bullying employees

A reader writes:

I am a co-owner of two bowling alleys with my husband. I actually started working at the first one as an employee, because I was only friends with my husband at the time. I worked my way up in the company being promoted to general manager by my now husband and his wife at the time. They later divorced, and I began dating him after he was single so it’s not like I slept my way to the top, etc. After we were married, we changed the officers in the company to reflect he and I as co-owners. We also purchased a second bowling alley of which I am the president and he is vice president.

My problem is, I have two part time employees at the first location who view my husband as the “Boss/Owner” and anything I do or say to them that they may have a problem with, they go to him and complain about me. Almost like they’re expecting him to reprimand me. They also say things to me like, “What did Joe say about that?” Joe being my husband. I usually respond with something like, “It doesn’t matter what Joe says, I’m telling you.” But then they go and try to complain to him when I respond that way as well.

When Joe is confronted with a complaint he usually says something like,”What did Andrea say? And did you do it? Why not?” Or he’ll say something like “If Andrea already told you why are you asking me?” But this doesn’t seem to be working. Any advice or suggestions?

Yep: You need to assert your authority, because you’re being bullied by your own employees. You need to stop allowing these employees to act as if you don’t have the authority you do have. If you buy into their game, it’s as good as conceding that you don’t have authority! And since you do, you need to act like it.

What does that mean in practice? Sit down with these employees (individually) and say something like, “Bill, I’m concerned with a pattern I’ve noticed lately. You’ve been asking Joe to reverse my decisions when you’re not happy with them, which makes me think we might not be on the same page about how we make decisions here. I make decisions about scheduling and policies (fill in anything else relevant here), and I expect you to abide by those, or discuss them with me if you have questions or concerns. We can’t have you going to Joe when you don’t like those decisions. If there are issues, I need you to address them with me, not with Joe. This is not negotiable. You’ve been a good employee and I hope you will be here for a long time, but that won’t happen if we don’t get on the same page about this.”

If they argue with you, nicely explain that this isn’t their decision to make, and that if they’re not able to work happily under those conditions, this may not be the right job for them. See this post for some ideas on this.

This conversation will be most effective if you can do it without sounding angry. You want to sound matter-of-fact — concerned but not angry. (There’s no need for anger when you hold all the cards, which you must remember you do. You are their boss. You can fire people who aren’t working out. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but knowing that you have tool available to you should help your resolve.)

Good luck!

{ 3 comments… read them below }

  1. Md. mahmudul Islam*

    Great thinking and the advice is sound to be working. I just have one question here, I’d do the same with my subordinates where I need to show them my authority, same attitude but with a little love and it seemed to be working well. I smile at them at every service they provides me according to their responsibilities. But just have this feeling that somethings missing!!! they don’t seemed to be respecting me very much. (Am not a owner of any organization, am just a marketing manager of a big ISP provider where I need to lead a big group)

  2. Wit's end*

    This is a great suggestion, however, this doesn’t work if you are a middle Manager in a large corporation with a Human Resource dept that ‘protects’ the little people. Such is my situation….I have an employee who hates my boss and has successfully managed to put me in the middle of this hatred. Can I also mention that my boss hates this employee with just as much passion? Each one wants the other one gone and this one employee has intimidated the entire office because she is unstable (manic depressive and won’t seek treatment). It is like working with a ticking time bomb. I have gone to HR, called the employee support line, seeked counseling, taken sedatives and still nothing is (or apparently can be) done. My only choice is to seek other employment at this point. Upward harrassment (employee to Manager) is just as big of an issue as Manager to employee and there is very little published on the subject. Any suggestions before I throw 20 years of experience down the drain?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Either your HR department sucks or you haven’t presented a persuasive case to them. If it’s the former, you need to get higher-ups involved so that HR stops getting in the way of what you need to manage effectively.

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