For years I did a block of training on “How To Deal With A Disgruntled, Dysfunctional, Toxic Employee.”
Then, at one point, it occurred to me that I was doing little more than trying to provide people with techniques for dealing with, tolerating, legitimizing and further enabling abusers.
Yes, abusers. Those who who lie; blame others; demonstrate disdain for rules; engage in rumors, gossip, character assassination; ridiculing others; physical or emotional bullying; those who try to set up a shadow chain-of-command; misuse sick time or other benefits; engage in gaslighting; and take neither responsibility for their choices nor the consequences of their choices.
Teaching people how to deal with abusers in the workplace is no different than telling an abused child, spouse or significant other, “Here’s how you can modify your own behavior to make your life less painful.”
It is the same dynamic as domestic violence. It is the same dynamic as child abuse. It is victim-shaming. Victim-blaming. It lets the abuser off the hook for their choices and the consequences of their choices.
It is nothing more than encouraging dysfunctional, obscene co-dependence.
Do you want to know how to deal with a disgruntled, dysfunctional, toxic employee?
Now, some would say, “Whoa, Steve! You work in the private sector, we’re in the public sector. We can’t do that!”
Really? Is that the last little lie you want to tell yourself as you fall asleep tonight?
Every organization has rules, policies and procedures in place for terminating the employment agreement with dysfunctional employees. You must deal with that man. You must deal with that woman. And, should you choose not to, I don’t want to be in the meeting where you’re trying to convince everyone else that they should believe in the Mission, Values and Vision of your organization.
In many cases, failure to act decisively exposes the agency, its insurance carrier and taxpayers to unnecessary financial exposure. Codependence and enabling toxicity are expensive.
First Line Supervisors must act decisively; document, document, document. If you don’t deal with the little things when they are little things, the truly dysfunctional personality will continue to up the ante until they get someone’s attention. That usually takes the form of engaging the pathology of a willing – too often institutionalized – rescuer to join them in proving how they’ve been “victimized” – the foundation for b.s. grievances, litigation and undermining of public trust. You should be having daily conversations about requiring across-the-board consistency among all supervisors at all echelons so dysfunctional people cannot “shop for supervisors” nor “shop for ‘yes’.”
You want to know who thrives on inconsistencies? Defense attorneys, the media and guild organizations.
Everyone needs to stop being “people pleasers,” trying to “fix” other people, making excuses for them, or explaining away unacceptable behavior. Learn everything you can about gaslighting.
Labor organizations, guilds and the like need to cease enabling – even protecting – people who shouldn’t be employed in public service. Guild officers need to avoid confusing their title with their personal identity lest they fall into the trap of institutionalizing codependence to protect their own egos and inflated sense of self-importance. Typically when I ask them, “What is the purpose of a guild?” they respond with, “To protect our employees.” “From what?” I ask. “From ‘the’ administration,” they respond in chorus.
Stop it. Just stop. In the mind of a true “victim” – someone who does not believe they have any power to make anything happen – if there is no “enemy” or “persecutor” it is necessary to fabricate one in order to validate their own existence.
You didn’t become a guild officer or a member of a guild to “rescue” employees from personal accountability for their choices. And, I do not believe for a nanosecond that there is someone in administration with voodoo dolls named after employees sticking pins in them at every turn.
The fact is your job is a form of quality assurance: ensuring that decision-makers and employees alike respect and conform to the values, the policies and procedures of the organization.
Your job is to assist in ensuring that written standards are in place, that everyone has training on those standards, that the standards are being consistently interpreted and enforced at all echelons. You are there to protect the clarity and impartiality of the process. Your job is not to “protect” – e.g., enable – those who engage in willful misconduct. Altogether too many policies get into manuals because someone knew it was wrong and did it anyway … stop protecting those people. Your enabling does little more than embolden them.
In addition, you’re giving your hardworking, dedicated team members a message you may not want to give them. (BTW, guilds and other such organizations should also stop functioning as marketing arms – service lines – for local law firms seeking to increase billable hours through fomenting hate and discontent. That is a form of pay-to-play co-dependence all on its own.)
I am not “anti-guild.” So long as supervisors are inconsistent in interpreting plans, policies and procedures, focus only on the negative rather than catching people doing things right, choose not to effectively communicate and allow secrets and surprises in their cultures such shadow structures are self-inflicted wounds.
The chain-of-command needs to stop enabling toxicity as well. Those who turn a blind eye to workplace abuse – to toxic personalities – are very possibly worse than the abuser. Trust, train and support your First Line Supervisors in these and all other matters. Demand consistency and adult behavior at all echelons.
Human Resource departments need to get out of the co-dependence business and help structure and finalize the termination rather than enabling the dysfunction by giving abusers second-chance after second-chance after second-chance. One cannot have authority over any issue without accountability for the results. If HR folks want to determine who gets hired, disciplined or fired, then they must simultaneously accept accountability for that person’s choices.
If that were to happen in my workplace I would probably say to the HR person, “Fine. You can decide who gets hired, disciplined or fired. But, anytime that person YOU hired does anything even remotely untoward, I am bringing them to your house – I don’t care if it’s two in the morning – and I’m going to leave them with you with a note: “Your baby has pissed its diaper. Change it. That is not my baby. It’s YOUR baby …”
City Attorneys, County Attorneys and Civil Service Commissions … well, despite what they might try to foist off on us about their authority … attorneys and civil service commissions don’t run this place; their job is not to determine “whether” an employee needs to be fired … their job is to help with “how.” Teachable moments abound.
Abusers are not going to change and we do not have the power to change them.
Break the cycle of personal and institutionalized co-dependence. Break the “triangle.”
Do what any relationship counselor worth their salt would recommend to abused spouses, children and significant others: Get out of the relationship.
You owe it to the rest of your family – your team – to maintain a safe, rewarding culture for dedicated, future-focused, positive employees. You owe it to your constituents – voters and taxpayers – to stop subsidizing toxic behavior in the workplace with public funds.
Lead like you mean it. Adult like you mean it.
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