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ATD Blog

Confronting a Rude and Disrespectful Co-Worker


Tue Apr 30 2013

Confronting a Rude and Disrespectful Co-Worker-06b87d8cbfdf08c2badbcdffaa76ffe0a518a49486c418cae5ba342cdcb45909

  Too often, we as leaders treat individuals as cogs in the machine, interchangeable parts to be hired and used. Sometimes we use them up, discard them, and hire some more. This is the danger of literally believing the label that people are only “human resources.” When faced with a rude and disrespectful employee, having concern for them as an individual is an important starting point to solving the problem.

Another common mistake leaders make is to put our concern about individuals above all other people in the organization. We often hold on to problematic individuals or underperformers at the expense of fellow teammates.


When we allow someone to stay in their position at the expense of others being abused, team values being sacrificed, and work being inefficient, it’s not compassion, it’s negligence. The difficult challenge of leadership requires balancing our concern for all the stakeholders and working through their often conflicting needs.

At a minimum, direct reports deserve their leader’s honest evaluation of their work. They deserve targeted, behaviorally specific feedback, and improvement suggestions. Anything less shortchanges the individual and undercuts team and organizational effectiveness.

As leaders, we should also provide the resources and means to make the needed improvements. Many leaders assume the problem with poor performers is they lack motivation; therefore, the obvious way to fix the problem is to motivate their employees. However, motivation is only one of three possible causes of poor performance. It is also possible that the employee wants to perform but is unable to do so because of a lack of skills, knowledge, or resources. A third possible cause is a combination of motivation and ability—they are unable to do what’s required and don’t want to do it even if they could. To try and skill up the unmotivated is a waste of time and resources. To motivate the unable only creates depression, not progress.

My recommendation is to have a crucial conversation with the problem employee. Don’t try to solve the most recent occurrence; rather, use it as an example of the pattern of behavior you want changed. Be specific. Be factual. Compare what you expected with what occurred. If the issue has been previously raised to the individual, note that you and others have had several talks with him or her about this subject, with no discernible improvement. Explain that it’s time to take action, then give the employee two choices. If he or she is willing to make a heartfelt effort to stop the hurtful behaviors, offer to give him or her your complete support. This assistance could include training, coaching, counseling, frequent accountability, or feedback sessions to gauge progress and provide support.

If the employee is willing to try, set behaviorally specific objectives. Identify how you will measure progress—such as peer interviews, surveys, key observer reports—and set specific dates and deadlines to review progress as well as make modifications and changes. Set a final date by which he or she must demonstrate specific changes or explain that termination will result. Make sure all expectations are absolutely clear about deadlines, the behavior to be changed, and how it will be measured. You don’t require perfection, but you do require sustained, significant improvement. If the employee agrees, follow the plan.


If the employee does not agree to the development plan you propose and cannot propose an acceptable alternative, initiate the removal process. Allow no more delays or chances.

Responsible leaders care about their people—the one and the many. They don’t callously fire individuals, nor do they allow a single employee to disrespect, abuse, or negatively impact others. They don’t demand change without helping people have the means to change and reasonable time to do it. Responsible leaders give actionable feedback and recognize progress. And they follow through.

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