Lynne Curry: Supervisor may have erred in managing problem employee

ManagementJune 30, 2013 

Q. Our maintenance supervisor just suspended an employee on the spot for violence and now we've got legal trouble.

According to the supervisor, he asked the employee, an African-American, to come with him to the accounting area to replace a printer's ink cartridge. When the employee said he didn't know enough about that type of printer to replace the cartridge, the supervisor said, "how hard can it be ... just do it."

According to the supervisor, the employee then said, "If it's so easy, you could have done it rather than come find me from where I was working to walk me all the way over here to tell me to do it so you could show 'whitey' could push the black guy around."

The supervisor said he asked "Are you calling me a racist?" and when the employee answered "Yeah," he ordered the employee to his office. According to the supervisor, as soon as they got into the hallway, the employee said, "Let's just take this outside." At that point, the supervisor said he feared for his life, thinking the employee might have a knife and told the worker he had to leave and would get his final paycheck mailed to him.

The worker left, but then called our human resources manager and said he was going to the Human Rights Commission unless he got his job back or six months' severance. She interviewed the employee over the phone and he denied saying anything about "taking it outside." He said the supervisor was a racist and has had it in for him since he was hired.

This supervisor has a good track record with us and although he's a little rough around the edges, he cares about getting the work done and is loyal to our company. The employee has been a problem since he started and, as we see it, provoked a fight.

We don't want him back and don't want to pay him six months' wages for a bogus claim. What do we need to do?

A. Even though you consider the claim bogus, the Human Rights Commission or a jury may not agree nor have the same respect for your "rough around the edges" supervisor.

Supervisors need to be able to handle back talk. Instead of asking "How hard can it be?", which says you're either dumb or annoying, he could have showed his employee how to change the cartridge.

If he thought the "I don't know how" was phony, he could have addressed it, potentially with the aid of your company's HR officer. Employees who insubordinately refuse to do simple assignments because they don't like being "ordered" can be terminated for their refusals.

While your supervisor correctly decided to move the discussion away from the accounting staff, he could have better de-escalated the situation by saying, "That's an HR issue; let me give you a chance to talk to someone."

While your supervisor was completely right to move a potentially dangerous individual off-site, instead of firing the employee he could have said, "You're suspended pending investigation" and allowed cooler heads to handle the situation.

He and your company now lack proof the employee said "Let's take this outside." Who will a third party such as the Human Rights Commission view as more credible, your supervisor or your employee?

You now face a hard to defend claim concerning racism. Ask your HR manager to neutrally investigate this situation, moving the employee from fired to temporarily suspended. If I were investigating, I would ask, "What led you to think the employee had a knife?" If an unfounded fear, this might indicate unconscious racism.

If others also view your supervisor as racist, you need to reinstate your employee and arrange a different supervisor for the employee and discipline and train your supervisor.

If you find the allegation unfounded, let your employee know and ask your HR manager or a neutral third party to negotiate with him one months' severance pay in return for a waiver he won't sue or take this situation forward to a regulatory commission. In the long run, that's cheaper than the time you, your supervisor and his employees will spend talking with investigators, preparing your side of the story and potentially testifying. Of course, if you try this, make sure you arrange security for your HR manager's protection -- just in case.

Finally, train all your supervisors so they know what to do with in similar situations, particularly with potentially violent employees. Learning to say, "You're suspended pending investigation of your allegation," allows for both cooling down and investigation to get at the truth.

Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company. Email questions to lynne@thegrowthcompany.com.

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