“How do I handle a difficult employee without seeming like a weak first-time manager?”

Written by The Honest Boss

Covering a maternity leave position can be challenging at the best of times. But how do you handle unpredictable behaviour from one of the people you’re managing for the first time? 

I am currently doing a maternity leave cover for a more senior role than my permanent one. It’s my first time managing a small team and I am hoping to prove myself so that I will be eligible for promotion when the mat leave is over. 

The problem is one girl on my team has a reputation for being a bully and has had complaints made against her to our HR department. I recently did her performance review and praised her where appropriate but also suggested that she may need to work on her communication skills when dealing with colleagues. I was honestly very guarded and careful about how I handled it but she burst into tears and then reported me for bullying her. I don’t know how to handle this without seeming like a weak manager.

Amy, 27, restaurant manager

This is like something out of a movie when the bully turns the tables and accuses the heroine of bullying her.

I am guessing your confidence has taken a bit of a knock by having such a dangerous accusation hurled at you in your first management job. My primary piece of advice is not to panic. I am concerned for your emotional wellbeing but I am confident that your colleagues and bosses will be on your side. Significantly, this girl already has a record of bullying lodged with your HR team which means your version of events is much more likely to be believed. I am hoping that you took notes of the performance review as that will help support your point of view. If you haven’t done that already, I would recommend you do this now and continue to take notes of any future interactions you have with her as she sounds like she could be a serial troublemaker.

However, in spite of everything I have just said, it would be worth taking a step back for a moment to consider this girl’s behaviour in a slightly more sympathetic light. Is it possible she is untrained and feeling out of her depth in her role? Insecurity can make anyone swoop into flight or fight mode and her tears and accusations may be disguising such an underlying cause. 

Apart from you, what support has this girl had up to now? As you know, the hospitality industry is undergoing severe stress since the pandemic due to staff shortages, tight budgets and unpredictable customer behaviour. Most of us have changed our social habits since emerging from lockdown and have not yet settled into our new routines. This makes life very difficult for restaurants and bars such as yours to plan rotas as well as manage staff training and morale. 

It is also famously an industry that relies on largely freelance, young, minimum wage staff who are often not supported as much as they should be. My hunch is that customers are not particularly sympathetic either as I have sometimes witnessed rude restaurant guests complaining to innocent waiting staff about lousy service and increased prices. These are challenging times for you and your colleagues. This environment would make any workplace extremely stressful and it’s possible that the behaviour you describe is somehow connected to these complex issues.

This is of course speculation on my part but it is worth you exploring some of these possibilities with your HR team and deciding if your badly behaved colleague may deserve some benefit of the doubt. HR specialists are trained to deal with exactly this kind of situation and they have a duty of care to both of you, regardless of the fact that your role is mat leave cover. 

One of the specialists, rather than you, should be tasked with analysing this girl’s emotional and psychological state and then deciding what the next stage should be. If it is agreed that she is guilty of bullying, you may then be instructed to begin a formal disciplinary process with her which will involve a series of written warnings alongside close monitoring of her ongoing behaviour.

You have had a baptism of fire in your first management role but please don’t let it crush your ambition for future opportunities. You have acted in an exemplary manner and have merely been very unlucky to have encountered such a volatile staff member at this stage of your career. It’s most crucial that you appreciate you are not alone and that there are other people in the business who are more responsible for the situation than you. 

It’s positive to acknowledge that you work in a company that at least has an HR team who appears to have created the correct processes for this situation. ‘Process’ may not be a sexy word but it is a useful tool in your armour when dealing with unpredictable behaviour. Try to learn from this experience and hopefully one day you’ll be able to look back and reflect on how skilfully you managed a challenging situation.

Image designed by Klawe Rzeczy

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