A Cure for Misbehaving Managers – Try Sensitivity Training

I am starting to think there is an epidemic out there in corporate land.  In the past couple of months I have received 7 new assignments to deliver sensitivity training to wayward managers. Is something in the water?  The bad behavior includes everything from inappropriate and/or unlawful comments, bullying (e.g, yelling, anger, sabotage), poor management skills, passive-aggressive communications and the list goes on.

To solidify my theory, I read an article this morning about a bad, offensive, tasteless joke told by Safeway’s General Counsel, Robert Gordon, when he opened the company’s annual shareholders meeting on May 15.

Here’s a snapshot: President Obama was carrying two pigs under his arms, and a Secret Service agent complimented him on the pigs, to which Obama explained they were special pigs. He said he got one for Hillary Clinton and one for Nancy Pelosi, to which the agent responded, “Excellent trade, sir.”

Safeway’s CEO was mortified and wrote letters apologizing to Ms. Clinton and Ms. Pelosi.  Allegedly, the GC also wrote his own letters.  Hmm, does Mr. Gordon need sensitivity training? In mho, you bet.  In case anyone at Safeway is reading this, I am available.

Employers seem to have less of an appetite for the misbehaving manager these days. Why? The answers seem pretty obvious – liability, turnover, morale, distractions, impacting the bottom-line.  One question I always ask the prospective employer client: is the person worth saving? Sometimes the caller says, “um, good question”, and then promptly hangs up.  More often, the answer is “yes.” So, why keep someone who creates such turmoil in the workplace?

Easy answer: Because the misbehaving manager is often a great performer.  Funny isn’t it, how your greatest performer can also be your greatest liability? They are great, but, at the same time, their inappropriate workplace behavior is unsettling the office or even putting your company at risk for litigation. You don’t want to lose this asset, but you want to make sure that their out-of-line behavior doesn’t continue.  Oh, that’s right, some of you are working with this person, or know of one in your organization.

Given the surge in this type of training, I thought I would provide some tips if you need some help with your bad-behaving, great performer.

1. Don’t sugar coat the issues. Be direct, be specific. “Sue, your employees came to us as a group and said they can’t take it much longer. They need some relief.” This is an actual quote from a matter I handled last week. The manager is abusive, snotty, passive-aggressive.  Those are his better qualities.  Make sure you talk about the impact of the conduct – not just that you want it to stop.  However, be careful not to make the targets of the bad behavior sound weak or like whiners. Lay out legitimate concerns and cite very specific examples. Simply saying, “Stan, be nicer,” won’t get you anywhere.

2. Remind the person they are a role model.  I am finding that many managers forget they are role models. The yellers and abusers are actually giving tacit permission for everyone to act the same way.  The harassers need to know they, too, are the ones who must enforce the policy and create a safe environment.  Remind the bad actor of their role, how you expect them to act. Highlight your culture of respect and that you put people first.

3. Consequences. Don’t bother telling them to act nicer, stop yelling, stop the bad jokes and be a better “culture” fit if you don’t attach some consequence to their actions. What kind of consequences? Try termination. But, you have to mean it. I do not accept an assignment unless there is some significant consequence connected to the training. Doesn’t always have to be termination in the beginning – but it has to be enough to get the person’s attention. By the time you need outside help – termination is really the only option.

Stay tuned for more tips down the road.



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