Reverse bullying: What to do when your employee thinks they're the boss

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Question

I'm the part-owner and managing director of a family-owned business.

A long-term employee often behaves and makes decisions like he feels he is in fact the boss or has some kind of executive role. This isn't the case at all.

While he's been at our business for many years and is a very important member of the team, this doesn't give him the right to withhold vital information and to have the final say on important decisions (including financial ones) without consulting me.

What's the best way to approach his continual trouble-making?

If your employee is running the show without consulting you, it's time to put an end to it right now.

If your employee is running the show without consulting you, it's time to put an end to it right now.Credit:George Doyle

Answer

As an employee, you want to become an expert in your field. As an employer, you want the same for your employees. But there’s always a problem when that expertise goes from a possession shared with the rest of the organisation for the benefit of everyone to being a kind of jealously guarded treasure that nobody else must see or touch.

I asked Australian HR Institute Chairman and National President Peter Wilson for his thoughts on your situation. He says you need to bring an end to the behaviour immediately, and has some advice on how to do it.

"The employee’s behaviour is a form of what we call reverse bullying, and needs prompt intervention or the boundaries will keep getting pushed back," Mr Wilson says.

He suggests that you ask the person to attend a meeting, although make it clear that this is not a formal performance review, but a discussion about "how things are going in the firm with you and him". You should tell the employee that it’s fine if he’d like a colleague to attend the meeting to support him. You should feel comfortable also inviting a co-worker.

Work therapy.

Work therapy.Credit:John Shakespeare

"Before the meeting, prepare by taking a note of actual instances where he has breached communication or decision making protocols or expectations.

"Start the conversation by stating what the need is. It might be ‘in a small business we need to work well individually and collectively’ and then stating that both are important."

Mr Wilson says you should then reaffirm that the communication and decision-making rules or guidelines you have at your company are important - and why. Set out the instances where you and others have been let down by what he’s done and be clear that in the future his approach to similar matters needs to be different.

At this point, Mr Wilson says you should ask the employee to give his side of the story - to offer comment or explanation. You may want to rebut his responses if you feel they’re inadequate or unfair, but it’s essential that you hear him out.

"Say you are prepared to draw a line on the past, assuming future behaviours change. At the end of the meeting summarise your expectations and conclusions from the discussion. Ask the employee for any final comments."

Mr Wilson recommends keeping a record of the meeting and sharing it with all those in attendance. That gives you a documented account of what you’ve agreed upon, something to return to should the adverse behaviour continue or return.

With any luck, though, the meeting will help the employee see how their behaviour is affecting your and your company and they will again become a valuable member of your team.

Employee? Employer? Sole trader? Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do - as long as you have a question about work, we can help. Send your Work Therapy questions to jonathan@theinkbureau.com.au