employee hit me, manager won’t do anything

A reader writes:

I work as a supervisor in a call center-like environment. Technically I am a low level manager, but I am essentially powerless. My job is to keep work flowing to our operators consistantly from our various sites and be the communication hub between our sites, keyers, my superiors and our outsourcing company. I am supposed to be listened to, but if I am not the only thing I can do is go to my immediate superior, who then goes to his immediate superior, who is the first one with “manager” anywhere in his actual title. I am basically powerless unless I can convince those above me with actual power to act, and those above me dislike confrontation.

The other day, one of my employees was doing some work for another department. That department’s supervisor came over and asked her to stop keying the work for a minute while she explained the plan for the day. The employee answered “No.” This exchange repeated, and then I stepped in. I told my employee, again, to stop keying. She said “No.” I decided this was enough and pushed the “ESC” key to exit the program. While I was stepping back, this employee grabbed my wrist and slapped my hand, and told me to “never touch my keyboard again.” I told her that I would not have to as long as she listened to me when I gave her instructions. She again said “No.”

After stewing in my seat for a few minutes, I went and reported the entire situation to my supervisor who reported it to his manager. This manager talked to a couple people who witnessed the incident and then spoke to HR. The next day I was asked by the employee this whole thing started with, “Are we gonna have a good day today?” As far as I’m concerned, this whole thing reeks of insubordination, something we were specifically told to report by the higher ups.

Anyway, the situation was “resolved” by having the employee sign a letter that was put into her permanent file. As far as I know, this particular employee has many letters in there already, and I do not feel it is getting the message across. Anytime I have spoken to the manager who handled this, I have been told the issue is closed. I do not feel that this is a satisfactory resolution, and have been advised to speak with HR directly, and at least try for an apology from the employee. Do you think it’s worth the effort, or am I just going to get shut down again? I don’t really think I want to work in a place where coworkers can strike each other in anger and not be dealt with in a meaningful way.

Everyone is in the wrong here — the employee, your managers, and, to some extent, you.

We’ll start with you, because your managers are a larger issue that we’ll get to in a minute.

First, given the way you described your pretty powerless role, I’m not even clear on whether it was your role to intervene when the employee was ignoring the supervisor who told her to stop keying. But it definitely wasn’t a great strategy to lean over and press her “escape” key, or to start bickering with her in front of others (“I told her that I would not have to as long as she listened to me when I gave her instructions”).  When an employee is being insubordinate, the thing to do is to talk with them privately, let them know the behavior is unacceptable, and let them know what the consequences are if it continues. Your actions here were the actions of someone who isn’t confident in their own power — and understandably so, since your company has put you in a position where you’re expected to oversee work without any actual authority. The way you handled this signals “I don’t have more effective tools at my disposal.”

I think you need more clarity on the boundaries of your role. Does your manager want you to deal with performance issues like this yourself, or just report them to her to handle? If you’re supposed to deal with them yourself, are you actually expected to get them resolved or just to start the ball rolling (with someone else stepping in if this first-level intervention doesn’t work)? It sounds like it’s more the latter. This is, frankly, kind of a stupid position to put you in — it would be more efficient for them to give you some real authority. But they’ve chosen not to, and so you need to work within those bounds.

I suggest that you talk to your manager and ask explicitly how she’d like you to handle insubordination or other performance problems if they occur in the future. Tell her that what you’d like to do is to speak with the employee privately about the issue and explain to them what the bar for performance or behavior is, and where they’re falling short. Ask if that’s appropriate for you to do. If not, find out what it is that you’re supposed to be doing in these situations. But if she says yes, then you two should talk some more to get aligned on what the expectations are of your employees, how serious problems have to be before there are consequences, what those consequences are, and how they will be enforced. Right now, at a minimum, you guys are not on the same page about this — clearly.

You also need to talk specifically about this employee, who is being rude and insubordinate to you. Find out from your manager how much of this behavior will be tolerated. You don’t want to go blind into this situation and then find out after the fact that your managers won’t support you. You need to know ahead of time when and how they’ll have your back — or even if.

Now, as for your bosses … where to begin? Letting one employee slap another? Allowing open insubordination? I mean, they suck, clearly. Either they don’t particularly care or they’re afraid of setting and enforcing consequences. Either way, they’re bad managers.

And either they’ve put you in a situation where they haven’t given you the tools to do the job they’re telling you to do, or they’ve horribly miscommunicated to you what that job is. So yeah, you have bad managers. You should try what I suggested above, but keep in mind that these people suck, so the results that you can get are probably limited.

By the way, that idea about asking for an apology from the insubordinate employee? Don’t do that. Forced apologies are silly and meaningless. What you need from her is respectful interaction with you in the future — but that goes both ways, which is why you need to change the tools you’re using with her too. Good luck.

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Aseem Kumar*

    The setup described here is very similar to where I work. And it really is frustrating. I am responsible for getting inputs from people from different departments and communicate to my managers. And if they delay, I dont know if their managers do something or not, but my managers would be after my blood. As if I was responsible for their work. Worse, since the people are from different departments, it is hard to push them to deliver their work sooner or at least timely.
    This is a classical case of responsibility for other's work without any authority over the "other".
    I'll let this out – my workplace is Japanese and I am told it is no different from other workplaces here.

  2. Mneiae*

    Trying to manage others without any kind of real power sounds like an absolute nightmare. Not being able to reprimand an employee for striking a manager is ridiculous. She needs to communicate with her superiors about how to handle this situation and frankly start looking for another job in another company where it is not acceptable to strike superiors.

  3. TheLabRat*

    "You also need to talk specifically about this employee, who is being rude and insubordinate to you."

    Rude, insubordinate and committing acts of assault. Overall I think AAM's advice is sound but I just wanted to point out that not only does the OP's managers suck, they are opening themselves up to a potential lawsuit. Slapping your co-workers falls under most definitions of harassment last I checked.

  4. Anonymous*

    Am I the only one who thinks fingering the employee's keyboard was way out of line? Physically invading her space to intimidate her? Yeah, not the best strategy.

    I'm not a manager, and I don't want to be one, because I'm not to keen on people generally, but if I had been called in to Solomon that situation and this was the story I heard (end remember this is the LW's version of events, not the employee's) then I would prioritize disciplining the not-quite-supervisor before I did anything about the employee. Maybe a manager's perspective is different, but my perspective is common decency, not management.

    You don't manhandle employees. End. Of.

    Btw. That sounds like a _really_ crappy workplace in the first place. I have worked in a call centre environment, although not with call center stuff – we shared company and locale, but not tasks – and they are usually somewhere between the tenth circle and Malebolge for everyone involved.

    It makes me suspect the employee's attitude comes, not from a lack of management, but from how they feel treated. Does the employee have any say in being loaned out? Was she loaned out in lieu of disciplining her? Was she loaned out to do stuff she hates to do and didn't sign up for? Because that crap happened all the time in the call centre where I worked. People with technical skills, hired to do something technical, would come in and find that they were loaned out to the service center/switchboard because they had language skills, and the SC were off sick all the time because they were treated like crap. Basically you got punished if you spoke more than one language. Often these loans would then show up as red numbers on the loaned out techie's metrics and they would get a telling off. Basically, the techies were supposed to do their job AND man the switch board (if they spoke French, Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian) without entire days lost to answering phones showing up in the stats. Wtf? This was raised hundreds of times and nothing was done. You'd think they would find a way to measure helping other departments without the stats flashing red, but no. It was all down to time logged, and logging other time even when ordered didn't count.

    I escaped this, despite being fluent in three languages, by deliberately never passing the switch board assessment.

    My punishment for not being flexible to the company's needs? Nothing. I got to stay at my desk, doing _my_ job and got good stats which gave me nice pay rises until my CV was good enough to bugger off. My colleagues' reward for being flexible? Bad stats, bad reviews and less time to do their own job. Not to mention having to spend time on the bloody switch board.

    If I worked at a call centre and had had supervisor's who thought it was fine to manhandle me, then I would be pissy as well.

    At that call centre (and many like it) these "SME"s and "PoC"s and "Shadow Line Managers" and whatever these phony non-supervisory supervisors where called were just different names on the same phenomena: they were KAPO. Pure and simple. Lured by promises of privileges, some prisoners would agree to supervise the others. Accepting a KAPO position never, ever lead anywhere. They got no management experience and none of the privileges or career prospects were forthcoming. All these people got was hated by their colleagues, ostracized in the company club bar and worn down until they were let go for too many sick days. The company had a No References policy. All they would do was to acknowledge the employment and the dates.

    I'm not saying LW is working at that kind of company, but the phony non-supervisor positions do ring a warning knell.

    Kind Regards,
    Jessica – well out of that place and working for an excellent mid size company.

  5. Charles*

    One employee "hits" another; and management does nothing about it?

    If true, I don't care how hard the "hit" was – It is time to leave.

  6. Anonymous*

    Well. This is just a bad situation all around. It sounds like a bad work environment to begin with, but I don't agree with how the OP handled the employee. It was an invasion of space and could be interpreted as bullying. But, her reaction was also bad. She shouldn't have hit the OP, either. Really, both were in the wrong and both should be dealt with accordingly.

  7. Anonymous*

    It sounds something kindergartners would do. Hit the escape to make the person lose what they are doing. Hitting the other person on the wrist when they don't like someone or something that was done. And what's with the employee constantly saying no? I had pictured a child sitting there tapping the keys on the keyboard just saying in an annoying little voice "No. No. No." It sounds like they need, not an readjustment in management, but in attitude as well.

  8. jmkenrick*

    I agree with AAM's answer, but I have to say, I feel some sympathy for that employee.

    I definitely don't condone hitting anyone – but from her behavior is sounds like she doesn't feel like the OP is in charge of her. I have to wonder about the communication in this office, and maybe if the OP has 'disciplined' inappropriately before.

    I'm no in the habit of hitting people, but if my supervisor did things like lean over me and exit what I was doing, it would be hard to maintain the proper level of respect.

  9. nuqotw*

    Um, perhaps this is naive, but I think both OP and the hitter were lucky not to be fired on the spot. Both are way out of line. There are lots of people who are unemployed who would do a good job and wouldn't mess with each other's work / hit each other.

  10. Anonymous*

    Well, this could be a great opportunity to learn the power of influence. Leaderhip isn't neccesarily who holds the title, but who can influence. In this case, the OP needs to influence upward and downward. If the OP can do it in this environment then the skill set is truly transferable to almost any job. Most of us are not in direct line management, so have to use influence with our peers, other organizations, and even our customers.

    Two books that helped me were "Crucial Conversations" by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzer. Also "Crucial Confrontations" by the same authors.

    I don't want to come across as an ad for this company…but I was stunned by how implmenting some of the methods greatly impacted how I could resolve situations. (including interacting with my bi-polar sister when she is off her meds and having a positive outcome)

  11. Anonymous*

    OP here, just wanted to address some of the comments.

    First of all, looking back on this incident I completely agree that I was out of line touching the employees keyboard. I was spoken to about that, but also told by management that they would have done the same in my place, so yay for mixed messages I guess.

    To address those who say the employee may have felt bullied, she very well might have, I don't know what was going on in her head any more than she knew what was in mine. I will tell you what I do know, and that is that the other employees are afraid of and feel bullied by this employee, and I'm sure this incident didn't help that much. She has a long history of insubordination and cursing out her coworkers (about 10 years is my understanding). In fact, my co-supervisor was called an a**hole by her during this whole exchange.
    Don't get me wrong – I realize that my reaction precipitated the incident and I am going to make sure it does not happen again. The initial anger has worn off and I am honestly trying to give the most unbiased account of things I can.

    Oh yeah, as for the loaning of employees – we are in a period of low volumes of work, while other departments are not. When we run out of work, it is the employees themselves who let me know and ask if they can go into the other department – whatever else it is, it's better than staring at a blank screen for hours.

    Lastly, I think common decency and even mutual respect in the workplace is a great ideal to strive towards. To this end, I should not have touched that keyboard. However, I also do not see the point of having employees that are not going to follow simple, unoffensive requests that are well within their job description.

    Last thing – we ordinarily get along just fine, and that has continued after the incident. Phew, guess I had a lot to add!

  12. Charles*


    How badly does your office need employees that they are willing to allow her abuse of others to go on for ten years!

    Cursing others out, and now hitting. I sure hope that someone is documenting this unprofessionalism well to fire her and soon before someone seriously gets hurt.

    Or do you think this might be a case of she is nearing retirement and no one wants fire her?

  13. Anonymous*

    People keep saying "it's time to leave" no. – jobs are hard to come by. The answer is that the environment is not right so find out who is in power and go with them. If the managers will not back you up, then side with the one who they do back up. For example, if they will not stand against the employee, then side with the employee. Protect yourself against bad management

  14. Anonymous*


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