Dealing With an Insubordinate Employee
As a manager, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world: an employee who deliberately disobeys direction. The result is generally negative and can be seen as incorrect work, poor customer service, friction between staff, and maybe the most painful of all, your supervisor criticizing you for poor management skills.
Insubordination creates a ton of stress in the organization and destroys teamwork and effectiveness. So, what should you do about an insubordinate employee?
Here’s how to fix it.
There are two solutions we’ll consider: 1) The employee will turn around and become a collaborative team member, making the organization more productive, or 2) The employee will choose not to comply, there will be an employment action where the employee will be reprimanded, possibly put on probation, or terminated. There is no in-between the two options. Living with insubordination and taking no action leads the organization toward ineffectiveness and destruction.
The good news is the choice will be the employee’s, not their supervisor’s.
Over the years of working with a large staff, I’ve had just a handful of insubordinate employees. After analyzing those situations I’ve learned how to solve the problem from the start, in the hiring process. I’ll tell you that down below. First, let’s look at what you should do about an insubordinate employee you have right now. Our goal is to turn around the problem-employee to be highly productive, and if they choose not to, to help them depart your organization.
What is an Insubordinate Employee?
Insubordination comes in many forms. Rarely is it obvious where an employee just goes off the deep end, shouting on a megaphone, “Take this job and shove it!” That’s easy to spot and decide that the employee must be immediately terminated. For many other situations, I wish it were that easy.
When I have a stressful personnel situation, I remind myself of a little sarcastic anecdote about the world of work… Remember Junior High School, when cliques, gossip and popularity were the main things kids worried about? Some people never graduated emotionally from that time, and as adults, they bring their oddball behavior into the workplace. And here we are dealing with them… again!
Some examples of an insubordinate employee:
- Using strong emotions, like anger or sarcasm, instead of calmly offering input. Example: you’re in a meeting, and you tell the IT manager that your computer goes on the fritz a few times each day when the screen flickers to dark. Instead of saying, “let me stop by and take a look at it,” he sarcastically says in front of everyone, “are you sure it’s plugged in?”
- Ignoring the direction of supervisors or experienced peers who can show the employee quick ways to complete a project. Example: You want someone to schedule a meeting with 10 individuals. You know in the past they’ve done this inefficiently, emailing to all the possible dates and asking everyone to email back—replying to all—when they are available. You want to suggest they use organized scheduling software like Doodle, and they say, “no thanks, I got this.”
- Withholding information that would help a colleague complete a project or task faster. Example: They are the group expert on economic issues, and you’ve been assigned to analyze the impacts of inflation on the stock market. They could easily show you how to find information and graphs on those two topics, but instead, they say, “sorry, I’m really busy the next three days,” which they know is after your deadline. “Contact me then.”
- Providing vague feedback that intentionally confuses or causes time delays. Example: You have a technical memo that must go out to clients tomorrow, you send your draft to several people for review, and you’ve asked for their corrections to be made using track changes in the document. One sends you tons of feedback, but instead of using track changes, the edits are in the body of an email where they’ve copied text from your document, put it in the email, edited it with strikeout fonts, and added new text. If you’re going to use their edits, you have to rewrite them in your document, a total hassle and time waster.
- Without notice, showing up late to meetings, or not showing up at all. Example: You are the supervisor of employees who have a hybrid schedule, sometimes working in the office, sometimes remotely. Your team is scheduled to meet with your boss and your boss’s boss for an important discussion on strategy. Everyone has accepted the meeting invitation on their calendars. Also, everyone on your team has been told how important the meeting is, and your employees have prepared a presentation describing the strategic direction of your group. One key employee working remotely misses the meeting without notice, and you have to cover for him. When you ask him later why he didn’t show up, he tells you it was his turn to take his son to soccer practice, so he couldn’t attend—and just blew off the meeting.
Intent Versus Behavior
Recognize we cannot understand an employee’s intent. That’s in their head. What we can respond to—what we can only respond to—is their behavior. We must note what we see and focus on changing that.
What can you do about the behavior you see? Lots. The model for dealing with these challenges is always the same. Here’s what to do:
- Describe what you saw.
- Confirm that the employee saw the same thing.
- Tell them you didn’t like that behavior and why. Describe the problem it caused.
- Tell them the behavior you’d like to see and ask them if there are other ways to achieve the same goal.
- Ask them if they can implement the new behavior going forward. Remember, it will be the employee’s choice whether to change their behavior.
- Document the conversation in an email.
Here’s an example.
- “Doug, our group had a strategy meeting today with our director and the vice president of our division. Were you aware of that?”
- Doug says yes because he accepted the meeting on his calendar and helped create part of the presentation. Ask, “why didn’t you attend?” Doug tells you it’s because it was his turn to take his son to soccer practice.
- “Doug, you are responsible for X and Y in our group, and this was an important meeting to participate in. In fact, you were responsible for part of the presentation and I had to cover for you. One big problem it caused was our VP had questions that required your expertise, and we didn’t know the best answer. We looked dumb in front of the VP. Also, you didn’t tell anyone you could not attend. Is this what happened from your perspective? Is there anything I’m missing?” Doug confirms. (However, sometimes people tell you new information here, so be open to other interpretations, like legitimate emergencies—which you may need to verify that they are telling the truth if the misbehavior is frequent.)
- “Here’s what needs to happen going forward. When you commit to a meeting, you need to show up and do your part. If you can’t, you need to contact me—your supervisor—or if I’m unreachable, someone else on the team.”
- “Can you do this going forward?” This is the employee’s opportunity to choose their behavior.
- Document the conversation in an email. Title the subject line descriptively, something like, “Our conversation today about missing the strategy meeting and the plan going forward.” For a subordinate, when you send them a documenting email, they will likely deduce they are “on notice.” It’s short of an official employment action, like probation. If they continue with such behavior, the next time, you’ll be able to show a pattern of irresponsibility, which may lead to an employment action. Even if you just send the email to yourself, to record an event around the date and time it occurred, you create contemporaneous notes, which are extremely useful in employment actions. Remember to bcc yourself and keep a copy in a file folder.
I’ve used this process multiple times. In most cases, it has helped employees break a pattern of negativity, change their behavior, and even helped create a stronger bond of mentorship. A handful of times, I’ve used it as evidence of the need for termination.
The Big Fix
As promised, here’s how I got rid of insubordinate employees from the start: I stopped hiring them!
During the interview process, we now ask prospects a few key questions. We ask them to tell us about a time when they made a mistake, what it was, and how it was fixed. In the story they tell, we actually don’t care about the mistake. We only want to know what they did to fix it. Did they come clean right away? Did they apologize? Did they learn any lessons? How did they change their behavior to avoid future mistakes? We ask lots of questions about the story they tell us, imagining what that employee would do with the projects and personalities in our workplace. We sometimes give them hypotheticals about projects we work on to understand how they might respond.
To get good team players, we also ask about a time when they had a conflict with someone, what it was and how it was resolved. You would not believe the stories we’ve heard over the years, with prospects telling us how they talked to everyone BUT the person in conflict to try and get others to resolve the issue—or blame the other person—instead of doing it directly. They have no idea we’re really asking about teamwork, collaboration and communication.
Those two questions have screened out a lot of poor prospects in the interview process, and as a result, today we have a great team collaborating and working together.
An insubordinate employee creates stress and low performance. It costs you money and lowers profits. You can reduce the anxiety and get your organization back on track by being direct, focusing on the conduct you see and establishing a plan to change the behavior going forward.
Would you like to talk about a problem you’re having and how to resolve it? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll discuss it!
Barry Moline is a keynote speaker, 25-year CEO and author of Connect! How to Quickly Collaborate for Success in Business and Life. He offers effective, connective ways to lead and communicate, which help your success in both the workplace and beyond.
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