out-of-control employees and unhelpful boss

A reader writes:

How do I handle a supervisor who insists on interfering in decisions I make regarding my personnel — such as leave time, work assignments, staff not coming into work and then apologizing to him with no explanation to me, etc.

When I approach this supervisor regarding very specific issues that have arisen such as false comments made at work by those I supervise that cause relatives (whom I do not know) to come to my home to “confront” me, he laughs because he finds the topic humorous (never mind the fact that I felt threatened–a topic he never addressed). Or when threatening calls are made and messages left on my work voice mail, he does nothing. He has never addressed those involved in the situation. He’s only said to me basically to ignore it. H.R.is not much of a help either.

I asked this writer to clarify exactly what her role is in regard to these staffers, and she said, “I have hire and fire authority and I am their direct supervisor.”

Um. I’m going to be a little harsh here, because I’m a bit stunned by this letter.

Either you have authority or you don’t. Right now you’re acting like you don’t.

Why are you asking your supervisor to handle these issues for you? You are the manager of these people. You need to manage them.

Your staff’s relatives are coming to your home to confront you? People are leaving threatening messages on your voicemail?

You have completely lost control of your staff. You need to get it back, immediately. You need to address this on three fronts: your staff, your boss, and yourself.

1. Your staff. You need to sit down with each staffer, individually, and explain what is and isn’t acceptable. For instance, they are to clear leave time with you, not your boss. If they do not do this, it will be considered unapproved leave. And, uh, having relatives come to your home or call you is not acceptable. Explain that you’ve tolerated more in the past than you should have, that that’s changing immediately, and that you expect them to comply. Period.

If they don’t comply, warn them once. If they still don’t comply, fire them and hire people who will behave appropriately. What you’re talking about is far too over the line to mess around with. And frankly, the situation sounds so far gone that you may not be able to recover the respect that you need to properly manage with this current crop of staffers anyway.

2. Your boss. Why is he undermining your decisions? Has he lost confidence in you? Either he is a bad boss who doesn’t know how to properly delegate authority, or he’s stepping in because he’s not happy with the way you’re running things. Actually, either way he’s a bad boss, since if he’s unhappy with your management, he should have talked to you about it by now. So he sucks either way, but you’re stuck with him.

You need to have a candid talk with him. Tell him that in order to manage your staff effectively, you need them to see you as their final authority, not him. Explain that he undermines your effectiveness when he reverses your decisions. Ask him to resist the impulse to meddle in individual decisions you make. If he has concerns with how you’re handling things, you and he should work those out on a big-picture level. Either he’s assigned you true authority or he hasn’t, but he can’t have it both ways.

3. Yourself. How did the situation get to the point that you have a staff doing these things? This is not normal. At a minimum, it’s indicative of a staff that doesn’t respect you (possibly because you haven’t exercised your authority correctly with them). You need to figure out how this happened so that you really understand how this all unfolded and what to change.

Here are two previous posts on exercising authority in situations like this that may help:

asserting authority with bullying employees
new managers and authority

There are also tons of good books out there on good management (including my own!). I think you’ll find they might really help too. It’s can be hard to find the right balance when it comes to authority — avoiding the two extremes of wimp and tyrant and instead finding that spot in the middle — especially when you don’t have good models for it. Your boss doesn’t seem willing/able to help, but there are many resources out there that can. Good luck!

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    It’s possible she works for a state or federal government agency, in which case this is actually quite normal.

  2. Charles*

    um, for real?

    “relatives . . .come to my home to confront me,”

    “threatening calls are made and messages left on my work voice mail”If this is truly happening – why for pete’s sake haven’t you notified the police. Even if you feel that there is nothing they can do, or they tell you there is nothing they can do this still needs to be documented. That way if (when?) it escalates there will be a well-documented history of such behaviour.

    From my time served on a Grand Jury I learned that such behaviour is considered making “terroristic threats.” From my understanding it doesn’t matter what their intent was, rather it matters how it made you feel – threatened.

    I am not a lawyer; but to me this doesn’t sound like this is a “office politics” or a “manager not doing his job” issue. It sounds to me like it is (if for real) a criminal issue and needs to be dealt with as such.

    P.S. AAM, do you think someone just “punked” you with this letter?

  3. Bohdan*

    I have worked at a company where the ‘clan’ coming in to complain about disciplinary action (or even unwanted assignments) became common. They instituted a stringent nepotism policy to try and combat it but since they grandfathered everyone in the company its impact was limited.

    The company was a government contractor. Nobody seemed surprised by the behavior.

  4. HR Wench*

    I cannot stress this enough:

    If anyone (known or unknown to you) calls or leaves a threatening voice mail, email, whatever, please call the police and report it immediately.

    I don’t care if you feel stupid, embarrassed or think it is an empty threat. Threatening bodily harm or death is against the law and it is not worth it to find out if they are serious (or unstable) or not. Do not go to HR. Go directly to 911 and *then* let HR know after you have contacted the proper authorities (which is NOT HR in a situation like that).

    If someone comes to your home to “confront” you, tell them to leave immediately and never come back. If they don’t, call the police.

    This is unacceptable and criminal behavior. Do not tolerate it one second more. Get on the horn to the fuzz or get the heck out of there (or, preferably, both).

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