my employees are out-of-control and their relatives are confronting me at home

This post was originally published on May 20, 2009.

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!

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. WWWONKA

    If your boss doesn’t change his ways and back you up I say move on. Also make sure when you talk to your reports individually that if anyone calls you or comes to your house again it will be reported to the local police.

  2. JessB

    Wow, I remember this one. What a doozy!

    There are times when I’ll put myself in the OP’s position and try and think through what I would do, and this one is such fun to do that with- imagining to conversation with all the workers is so entertaining!

    “So, to sum up, I am the final authority for you, not (Supervisor) and our relationship will be a friendly business relationship. If there is an issue, you and I will sort it out- not your family members. Our interactions will happen here at the office, and showing up at my home will result in instant dismissal. Threatening behaviour towards me will result in instant dismissal, and the possibility of further action. Okay, any questions? No? Then let’s get to work!”

    1. Laura L

      “showing up at my home will result in instant dismissal. Threatening behaviour towards me will result in instant dismissal.”

      Yeah, seriously. They or their relatives show up at your home to confront you? Get rid of those employees! WTF?!

      1. Jamie

        Just out of curiosity – how is that your employees all have your address?

        HR has mine and my bosses could get it, but with the exception of a couple of people with whom I’m friends outside of work people may know what town I live in, if it comes up, but no one would know my exact address.

        1. JessB

          That’s a good point, Jaime. I’m the same, HR would have mine, and my boss had dropped me off at home a few times, so she would probably remember where I live, rather than the actual address.

          Maybe if it’s a small town? When I lived in a little country town here in Australia, everyone knew each other, and where everyone lived – round the corner, the other side of town, near the general store, above the bakery, etc.

          1. Anonymous

            You don’t even need landlines. I haven’t had one in the last three places I’ve lived, but your friend google will tell you each of those addresses. It’s pretty hard now to keep that info private.

        2. Anonymous

          Jamie-not sure if that was a rhetorical question or if it was directed at me, but I am not a manager so I don’t actually have any employees. :-) I just don’t understand why someone with hiring and firing authority would put up with that.

          And, to repeat what Anonymous said below: Google knows everything!

  3. KireinaHito

    …relatives (whom I do not know) to come to my home to “confront” me(…). Or when threatening calls are made and messages left on my work voice mail…

    Anybody I don’t know who comes to my home to “confront” me, would need to “confront” the police instead.

      1. Cruella Da Boss

        That is “harrassing communications.” First, you must tell the person to never call/ come by again, or you will call the police. Then do just that. Record the voice mails. You will need them for evidence.

        Good Luck

  4. Bea W

    I’m totally confused as to what is going on there. Is the supervisor preventing this OP from firing or otherwise disciplining her staff who act like this? Interfering how? Did she appear to not be acting like she has authority because her supervisor was actively undermining it?

    I’d argue that any employee who either threatens you or sends people to harass and threaten you is not someone who would likely act otherwise if a boss put their foot down. The only reasonable way to deal with that kind of behavior is to report it to the police and show the employee to the door. That is just completely unacceptable, and it sounds like the OP’s supervisor, who laughs at the OP’s concerns, is the one who isn’t managing. When you have someone who responds to this kind of situation like that, who has more authority than you do, and is probably a jerk to boot, it is beyond the point fixing by asserting your authority as a manager.
    I hope the OP got out of that situation. It sounds awful and very unsafe for her.

    1. fposte

      One possibility, though, is that the staff was going to the supervisor because the OP wasn’t managing them. The supervisor sounds sucky too, but it’s the OP’s job to call the cops and show the employee to the door, put people on PIPs, etc., and she didn’t do that either. It sounds like a bad situation at several levels.

      1. Colette

        It’s not actually clear to me that the employees are going to the OP’s supervisor – it might just be another supervisor in the company. If that’s the case, the OP might need to talk with her boss about how to deal with the other supervisor.

        1. Bea W

          Yes I re-read and they are going to “a supervisor”, not her supervisor. My mistake. I pictured people going up the chain over her head. If they were going to another supervisor is just weird. I wonder if this was someone they previously reported to.

          She doesn’t mention talking to her own supervisor, just HR. If I were unsure how to handle the behavior of my staff and another supervisor who was undermining me, that would be the first person I’d think to seek advice from.

    2. thenoiseinspace

      Same! I’m glad I’m not the only one – I kept re-reading this and so much about it just doesn’t make sense. What on earth is going on in that office (or OP’s home?)

      1. Bea W

        I can’t imagine. Even if the OP is the wimpiest and most clueless of wimpy and clueless managers, what kind of messed up work environment exists where anyone thinks it is okay to behave like these people are behaving? It’s quite a leap from taking advantage of an ineffective manager to making threatening phone calls and sending family to the intimidate them at home.

        1. Arbynka

          This. I mean how does that even work ? “Hey uncle Frank, my manager is being a real pain, here is his address, can you go and talk some sense into him?”

  5. plain jane

    This one is impressive.

    A couple of other ideas to add for anyone else who found themselves in this situation – if your supervisor is reversing your decisions, it might make sense to float your plans by them for a few months so that they do have an improved trust level. Obviously you can’t do this for things that have to be spur of the moment but a couple of “I’m planning on speaking with Ann about her continued tardiness at our next weekly meeting”, or “Bob and Carl are having some challenges right now, so I’m going to be assigning them to different project teams for a few months”. This gives the manager a chance to see that you’re doing your job _and_ gives them an opportunity to give their input if they feel compelled to do so (and then they won’t be flipping your decisions without warning after the fact).

  6. BCW

    This one could be a couple of different things. Back in the day I had “shift supervisors” or “team leads”. I don’t know for sure if they could hire/fire people, but they did have authority to discipline. That said, the manager was still the final say in many decisions. Not saying it was right, but sometimes you could get more from the manager for various reasons (shift supervisor was petty, manager was nicer, etc). Without knowing the real way the hierarchy is set up its hard for me to really say how bad the OPs manager is.

    But I can say it sounds like the OP is just a bad manager. If she had the power to fire someone all along, yet has been dealing with people coming to her house, well thats her own fault for letting it happen. If you feel threatened, its up to you do to do something about it. It happens once, you call police, fill out a report, and fire that person. You sound like you have no problem passing the buck either, so yeah, you probably don’t give him much reason to trust your decisions.

    1. some1

      Yeah, I would need to know more details about why the employees were going over the LW’s head. If, for instance, my sup would not approve a day off for an emergency that came up suddenly or a family funeral or something, I’d probably go over his or her head, too.

      I wouldn’t allow my family to approach my boss about it, though. My career is my responsibility to handle.

    1. Cruella Da Boss

      Sounds like the relatives are bullies and/ or the employee is a wuss. This situation escalated when they showed up on the doorstep. Why can’t employees be adults and handle their own issues without dragging their mommies and daddies into them? Geez!

      1. Arbynka

        You know, I can just picture what would happen if I asked my mom to go and talk to my boss for me. She’d probably take my temperature and tell me to lay down and elevate my legs.

  7. Jamie

    If someone came to my house for any reason, with the exception being, “While you were out we went on on a lotto pool and we chipped in for you…so here is your share of zillions of dollars and you never have to work again.”

    You know what…even then…tell me by email or pick up the phone. And even in my fictional world I’d still give 2 weeks because I couldn’t not give notice. Actually probably more because with tons of people leaving they’d need me for the transition.

    Wow…digression….but yeah…one person at my house and the world stops until this is resolved. And my husband doesn’t get involved in my work life, but good luck keeping him out of this one – you don’t send your minions to my big dogs cage and expect that to end quietly with you still employed.

    I would so love an update on this one.

    1. Evan

      That reminds me of a comment I saw on another blog, by a person who said he never gambled except chipping into the office lotto pool. Because just in case they won a big prize, he didn’t want to be the only team member who still had to work!

      1. Chinook

        I had a boss with the same theory – he didn’t want to be in charge of the department that won the lottery and quit!

        As for anyone coming to the house to voice concerns, that is why DH got the wolf. For some reason, taking one look at his princess with the pink, rhinestone collar, yellow eyes and fangs is enough for most uninvited guests to become quie polite.

        (P.S. DH is a cop in a small town, so this is a concern)

          1. Chinook

            She believes DH is the alpha of the pack and wolves don’t eat the boss ;) She is so timid and was the runt of a litter who was abandoned and rescued. She understands how lucky she is to get to sleep on a couch and get her hair brushed and sees that as a fair trade for her freedom. She pushed the limits to verify we would be in charge and is more than happy to be part of our pack.

    2. Tiff

      I am laughing right now because my first thought was: My house? You’re about to meet a whole nother person that the Tiff you know at work.

  8. CF_programmer

    What a tough situation. I wonder though, perhaps OP is not temperamentally suited to a supervisor role. I know I am not. My goal is to make my code so ultra pure and perfect that my phone never rings and my email inbox stays empty. Know thyself.

    1. fposte

      That’s my thought, or at least is enough of a neophyte at it that she needs support and guidance. She doesn’t seem to hear how much she paints herself as the passive object of everybody else’s actions, and that’s something that would have to change.

  9. HR Competent

    This doesn’t sound like an office setting, most likely manufacturing. I’ve worked and managed these type of operations in the past and the employees can get a bit crazy.

    Strong leadership is the only effective way to manage. Sureness, confidence, and no flinching is required.

    1. Jamie

      That’s what it sounds like to me, too. Although we can’t rule out a band of renegade accountants with overly involved and scary family members.

        1. Jamie

          This cracked me up. :) (And I totally read those words in Sean Connery’s bad Irish accent in the Untouchables.)

      1. Nancie

        I’m now picturing a bunch of accountants who look like they stepped right out of West Side Story — complete with switchblade-action slide rules.

    2. Ann Furthermore

      I was thinking the same thing. A good friend of ours is an HR director for a discount/dollar-store type company with locations in many states. He travels around in his region addressing HR issues, testifying in labor dispute hearings, and so on. Some of the stories he’s told me are pretty out there…like the guy who was fired for wanting to put a hit out on his wife, and asking co-workers if they were interested in making some extra money. Yikes!

      He’s an ex-military guy, and has quite a few tattoos. He told me once that when he’s dealing with an HR issue involving someone in the office, it usually goes just fine.

      Sometimes, though, when it’s someone from the warehouse, that person will start to get belligerent or threatening. So at that point, my friend suggests taking a break, and when the meeting resumes, he’ll have taken off his tie, unbuttoned the top couple buttons on his shirt, and rolled up his sleeves so his tattoos are visible. And it completely changes the tone of the entire meeting. LOL!!

  10. Jazzy Red

    This is what that person who was afraid to fire the receptionist because of her lawless & possibly violent family was afraid of. I hope this original OP took Alison’s advice and either started “tough” managing, or found a better job.

    1. MR

      I took the same stance as you and some of the readers disagreed with me because management was finally getting around to doing something.

      The lesson, as always: Nip the problem in the bud right away to keep something small from becoming unnecessarily big.

      1. LCL

        And if you get that promotion, get a tat and show it. I did, seriously, to celebrate the increase in pay. I hadn’t thought it might help with my authoritay!

  11. Really?

    Sometimes I have to wonder if I read the same letter as everyone else.

    So…the OP had a supervisor (I’m pretty sure it was worded “a supervisor” because “my supervisor” would have made the sentence awkward) who constantly undermined her. Both the supervisor and HR were no help when she tried to escalate issues with employees and told her to “just ignore” the threats and insubordination. He thought it was funny that employees were threatening her. This is what made him a bad boss. No one deserves that and he should have shut it down immediately. If he thought she was weak in management, he could address it after he got rid of the lawsuit-bait employees.

    This was a very poor choice for a repost. It’s sanctimonious, incredibly sexist (because it’s totally okay for a male boss to laugh off harassment of a female bringing it to his attention since she isn’t perfect), and posting it again smacks of a petty desire to say “Look at the epic smackdown I gave this OP! Look how clever I was even four years ago!”

    1. Jamie

      Sexist? I can’t even imagine where you’re seeing that. And where does Alison say that’s it’s okay to laugh off harassment? She’s saying quite clearly that it’s not okay and outlines the how the OP should address it with her boss.

      Do you really believe Alison would be on board with it ever being okay to laugh off harassment or come down on the side of being in favor of sexism? Really? I don’t know how anyone who has been reading here for any length of time could come away with that impression.

      I think we may have been reading different letters…and different responses.

      1. Not So NewReader

        I agree, Jamie.
        I don’t see any smack down from Alison going on here. Just because Alison points out several things to look at does not mean that she is being vicious. If the OP does half of what Alison mentions OP will get some results.
        I think the question is relevant for our times. Look at the news and all the crap that happens in workplaces.
        I bet there are at least a 100 people who will never write in BUT they will read Alison’s answer several times to do a self check on their own leadership style.
        I say good for OP for writing in and good for Alison for being willing to take on that question with many aspects to it. The question remains relevant for our world. Sadly.

    2. fposte

      I’m curious–why do you think the OP didn’t fire anybody, given that she had authority to do that and nobody told her she couldn’t?

  12. Me too

    I could have written this in based on my current organization except I don’t have employee family members harassing me at home… yet. My employee is completely insubordinate (refuses to do her job and tells me that she won’t listen to anything I have to say/assign her) and my goes to my boss to complain constantly. I’m not allowed to fire her or discipline her in any way- my boss is worse than a wet noodle and thinks of us as equals even though I’m the head of the department and she’s supposed to be my assistant. And whenever she goes crying (literally) to HR, they send her home for the rest of the day with pay and I have to pick up her slack since it’s my department. Needless to say I REALLY feel for the OP and am currently looking for another job myself.

  13. Somewhat me

    I came to my current employer along with some former management types. We worked for a global company and now are at a company that is growing fast from a small company. I can see some of the things going on here on a smaller scale at my place of employment.

    At the first company, we were by the book types who were fair but were not bullied. Here, are not only fighting the employees but we are also second guessed by H.R. In fact, they try to dictate to us how to run our division.

    The turn over amongst management across the board is high. Most do not lodge complaints…they just leave! Which sucks because the company could have potential if it was run correctly.

    So I can not understand how this person let employees harass her at home but I can understand working at a place where the employees are viewed as golden and the management are viewed as tyrants for trying to stop such awful acts as allowing the employees to not take outrageously long breaks.

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