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IDear Workforce-I What to Do With a Hostile Employee

A five-pronged prescription.
August 23, 2000
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Safety and Workplace Violence, Dear Workforce

Dear Workforce:

We have an employee that appears to be disgruntled. As a result, she is creating a hostile work environment for co-workers. For example, she won't speak to anyone, she slings boxes across the floor, and when someone asks her a question she is purposefully vague.

This doesn't seem to really violate any policy, but it is really affecting morale of co-workers. How should I proceed?

--Jennifer S., H.R. Manager, major hobby and collectable company

A Dear Jennifer:

Jennifer, we had Mark Gorkin (who has done safety consulting for the postal service and others), the "Stress Doc" out of Washington, D.C., write a response as follows:


There are two serious dysfunctions in this scenario.

First, this kind of passive-aggressive and overtly aggressive pattern is not just anxiety-provoking for others, but may have an intimidating intent or effect.

Will this individual ratchet up the hostility and become globally explosive or, perhaps, start focusing on a specific target? Are problems with alcohol or drugs, an underlying or unrecognized depression or a burnout state fueling the hostility fires? A person displaying problematic behavior and emotional conflicts or a personality disorder fairly quickly becomes a morale and productivity tumor in an avoidance-based operational system.

Second, when employees believe management or company policy will not or cannot address, set limits or discipline such provocative and dysfunctional behavior, the tumor turns malignant. (Alas, management has been known to overlook or deny the interpersonal actions and consequences of a high producer.)

Various organ systems are invariably compromised and damaged. Employees, at minimum, are distracted; colleagues' fear and anger levels rise. The possibility of retaliation and/or mutual escalation increases.

Gossip and group cliques feed, if not scavenge, on this ambient tension. Employees steadily lose confidence in and respect for a "know nothing/do nothing" management structure. And morale, a belief in capable leadership and productivity are highly interdependent.


What about some strategies for disarming the hostile employee? As you didn't specifically indicate your role or relationship with regard to this problematic individual, I will take a multifaceted approach. Consider these five strategic interventions:

1. Peer Confrontation. Because of the somewhat unpredictable nature of the problem employee, encourage the work team to confront the supervisor not the troubled and/or troublesome colleague. The supervisor must hear how people are being adversely affected by this person's behavior. If the supervisor does not expeditiously address this problem, the group should approach the next level of authority or schedule an appointment with Human Resources.

There's a guerrilla tactic if management is unresponsive: People from the work team or department schedule individual appointments with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Counselor. Not only can the EAP professional be a work team advocate in this stressful scenario, but eventually someone high up will notice all the "lost company time." (More on the EAP option in 5.)

2. Clear and Firm Policy. Management and Human Relations need to design a practices and procedures policy on what constitutes a hostile work environment, including intervention and prevention steps. For example, continuously slinging boxes across a floor can readily be assessed as an unsafe work practice.

3. Team Performance Evaluation. In performance evaluations, more and more organizations are including the category of team player, that is, does the employee demonstrate a capacity for collaboration, cooperation and coordination with direct colleagues, personnel in other task-related departments, matrix team members, etc.?

So being purposefully vague or not speaking to anyone, especially if one is withholding or manipulating information that others need for doing their job effectively and safely needs to be a vital component of a formal job evaluation. This performance component should be formally included in a job description as well.

4. Supervisor-Hostile Employee Relationship. Clearly, a supervisor needs to have a face-to-face meeting with the hostile employee. The supervisor must have documentation which specifically enumerates the professional disruptive behavior.

In addition, the supervisor needs to inquire how the employee perceives her general and specific work floor/work team behavior. And the disgruntled employee needs to be confronted with the specific concerns identified by colleagues. (Of course, confidentiality for all employees needs to be respected.) At some point, a team meeting with all parties present is advisable. This meeting may require a professional facilitator.

Returning to the one-on-one, the supervisor might usefully inquire whether there is something in the work environment, including work relationships, that is troubling or frustrating this employee. With a person not overly defensive, one capable of hearing the supervisor's feedback, this meeting might become a wake up call. Sometimes, a disciplinary letter in an employee's file or losing a couple of days' pay, especially if the problem persists after a first discussion of the problem, can be a reality check.

(Remember, unless the level of behavior is significantly destructive, maximum disciplinary action should not be imposed if the supervisor and employee have not had a previous formal discussion of the problem behavior.)

The supervisor and problematic employee may now be able to establish a performance improvement plan. Goals, action items and timelines will need to be monitored on a regular, perhaps weekly, basis at first. If really fortunate, this person may even accept a referral for EAP counseling.

However, if the problem has been fairly chronic and defenses are well-fortified or if the problem has a definite biochemical component (e.g.,

clinical depression) then rational discussion and, even, traditional supervisory discipline may not be sufficient. And, of course, if alcohol or drug abuse is part of the diagnostic picture then medical treatment along with cognitive-behavioral intervention becomes critical.

5. Critical Intervention and Support. Especially with an employee demonstrating a pattern of hostile behavior, a supervisor may need outside assistance in dealing with such a problematic individual. For example, one recent intervention that helped turn around a hostile employee was my facilitating a confrontation between this employee and his supervisor.

Larger reorganization and dysfunctional leadership issues at higher levels had set the stage for a hazardous work climate. The supervisor initially felt he was not getting any upper management support in his attempts to set limits on and discipline the hostile employee.

Angry and dejected, the supervisor eventually gave up confronting this employee's disruptive behavior. This only exacerbated the employee's acting out patterns. A new division leader committed to tackling workplace morale plus an intensive individual and team intervention process put the brakes on a vicious work environment/behavior cycle.

Another vital conflict resolution step was holding a group meeting with the hostile employee, the supervisor, the new division head and the other team members. At first, I encouraged the team members to discuss the impact of the supervisor's detaching from his supervisory role. (I knew confronting the supervisor would be less threatening than tackling the hostile employee.)

Still feeling mostly safe, these peers next spoke of their upset or discomfort with the hostile employee's angry outbursts and bullying behavior. (The angry employee often is in denial about how aversive his behavior is to others. And, of course, the problem employee frequently sees his or her acting out as justified or provoked by others.)

The moral: A supervisor should strongly consider asking for support from a Critical Intervention Specialist or an EAP Counselor. While supervisors are usually aware of the EAP referral option for a problematic employee, the supervisor frequently overlooks the EAP option as a coaching resource for him-or herself.

Whether an intervention consultant or an EAP specialist, collaboration with a professional trained in dealing with hostile personnel and work scenarios will help the supervisor feel less isolated and vulnerable. Nothing like having good backup when tackling a hostile situation.

Of course, depending on the nature of the hostile behavior, internal security may need to be placed on alert (or brought in for consultation) if the employee becomes increasingly agitated during an intervention/discipline meeting or, for example, if he or she refuses to leave or keep off the work premises if instructed to do so.


Five strategic interventions have been highlighted: 1) Peer Confrontation, 2) Policy Clarification, 3) Team Performance Evaluation, 4) Supervisor-Employee Relationship, and 5) Critical Intervention and Support.

By building these steps into the company's operational philosophy, policies and practices, upper management will definitely strengthen organizational leadership, individual and team productivity and workplace safety and morale.

You can also get more information on EAP vendors and articles.


E-mail your Dear Workforce questions to Online Editor Todd Raphael at, along with your name, title, organization and location. Unless you state otherwise, your identifying info may be used on and in Workforce magazine. We can't guarantee we'll be able to answer every question.


 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

If you have any questions or concerns about, please email or call 312-676-9900.

The Workforce fax number is 312-676-9901.

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