In every workplace, there is a small percentage of employees who thrive in creating and engaging in persistent workplace conflict. They have very strong opinions on workplace issues, policies and personnel and become very aggressive (and/or passive-aggressive) when others disagree with them, including union representatives, supervisors and managers. They have difficulty accepting any type of direction or criticism – and commonly and aggressively challenge others on any decisions with which they disagree.
Characteristics of High Conflict Employees
When these employees are confronted regarding their workplace behaviour or performance through the imposition of workplace expectations or discipline, they launch aggressive and disrespectful campaigns against management, “witnesses” and at times, shop stewards, through grievances, harassment complaints and otherwise. Many use social media – such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs – to defame others in an attempt to intimidate them and shut them down.
Bill Eddy is a specialist in High Conflict Personalities and runs the High Conflict Institute. Mr. Eddy’s research and experience indicate that high conflict employees share one or more of the following characteristics:
- A repeated pattern of aggressive interpersonal behaviour, often disproportionate to the situation at hand;
- Frequent “all-or-nothing” and/or paranoid thinking, including: “It’s all so-and-so’s fault.” or “I’m purely a victim in this.” or “I know everyone is out to get me.”;
- Frequent unmanaged emotions, such as yelling, loud swearing and similar outbursts;
- History of extreme behaviours, such as threats against other employees; hostile emails; false statements; and spreading malicious rumours;
- A lack of flexibility, self-awareness or apparent ability to change;
- A preoccupation with being a victim, and as a result, preoccupied with blaming/bullying others; and
- The ability to appear innocent, so that others become their “advocates” and work to defend them.
These employees have a destructive effect on workplace morale, employee engagement and overall productivity. They expose organizations, including unions, to significant costs through filing multiple complaints against others – both informal and formal. Many employees quit or transfer as a result of this behaviour. Others take sick leave in response to anxiety-based symptoms, such as nausea, headaches and insomnia.
As a result of their aggressive demeanour, many coworkers of “high conflict personalities” are reluctant to confront or report them. Supervisors and shop stewards are equally reticent to address issues with them in a direct and forthright manner.
What Needs to Happen?
These employees need to be “managed” in a fair, firm and progressive manner. They need to be given clear and specific expectations regarding their workplace behaviour and communication and then need to be held accountable in meeting these expectations. To the extent they have an objectively and properly diagnosed disability, they need to be reasonably accommodated in the workplace to the point of undue hardship. However, such accommodation should not in any way include the accepting or condoning of intolerant, disrespectful or aggressive workplace behaviour.
Shop stewards, supervisors and managers need specific training on how to manage high conflict employees. As part of this training, they need to “expect” that these employees will be insubordinate and will file complaints against them in response to being held accountable. Instead of hiding from this behaviour, individuals need to address it immediately and directly in a respectful and calm manner.
From the management perspective, discussions should be followed up with clear written expectations. Failure to follow clear directions should result in progressive discipline up to the termination of the employment relationship.
From the union perspective, shop stewards should be trained on how to establish clear and respectful boundaries with a high conflict “member” to protect themselves from “personal attacks” should the employee decide to “turn on them”.
Harassment complaints launched by these employees should be investigated objectively and fairly, and any confirmed misuse of harassment policies and procedures should result in formal disciplinary action.
Directors and owners need to ensure that managers and supervisors are fully supported in their efforts to manage high conflict employees – generally – and when faced with harassment complaints and insubordination. Often, more than one supervisor should be involved in this process. A model of “shared responsibility/supervision” diffuses the intense stress, anxiety and fatigue commonly associated with supervising these individuals.
Union and management are most effective when they work as a team to build a consistent and comprehensive strategy in addressing these employees.
Using these strategies, managers, supervisors and union stewards can work to ensure that the interests of one do not overtake the interests of the whole. A healthy workplace is all about balancing the interests of the individual with those of the entire team to ensure that the environment remains productive and respectful for all.
Marli’s online video training on conflict resolution and respectful workplaces.